Summary (TLDNR Version)

This book displays the pathologies of in a way thoroughly wrapped up in the usual emotional whitewash typically deployed to justify it.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides a I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: D. TenNapel’s (2010)[2] Ghostopolis

I suspect that, had I not also recent read Pedrosa’s (2008)[3] Three Shadows (reply here), I would remain more baffled by how much I found this particular graphic novel so displeasing in many respects. I see several threads that point to this, and to try to bring them together requires getting them all out in the open so you can see them in the first place; so bear with me.

For one, the description repeated above has several misleading parts to it.

A page-turning adventure of a boy’s journey to the land of ghosts and back. Imagine Garth Hale’s surprise when he’s accidentally zapped to the spirit world by Frank Gallows, a washed-out ghost wrangler. Suddenly Garth finds he has powers the ghosts don’t have, and he’s stuck in a world run by the evil ruler of Ghostopolis, who would use Garth’s newfound abilities to rule the ghostly kingdom. When Garth meets Cecil, his grandfather’s ghost, the two search for a way to get Garth back home, and nearly lose hope until Frank Gallows shows up to fix his mistake.

The first part of the book, in fact, involves his mother dealing with the fact that Garth has a terminal illness; we also learn that the mother has virtually erased her father from her consciousness because of his alcoholism. These issues start the book off with some strong, albeit “easy”, emotional resonance—and to pitch the book as merely some variety of “boy adventurer” (for some reason) elects to create a false impression about the book.

Similarly, the detail “Suddenly Garth finds he has powers the ghosts don’t have” puts an emphasis in the wrong place; everyone mortal who goes to the afterlife has (at least in potential) the ability to use their imagination to do magical things (like fly, alter reality, &c). The book takes the conceit that the laws of physics that govern the living in the real world do not apply to the living in the afterlife, and vice versa for ghosts. Again, the description creates the wrong impression: it sets an expectation that Garth will function like a superhero—and, indeed, for no apparent reason his mortal powers of imagination in the afterlife do exceed that of others—but Frank still emerges as the necessary part of an eventual victory.

I have to pause. I know very well that backs of books exist not to inform people of the contents but to tempt them into buying the book. My objection hinges neither (1) on my own disappointed expectation—I read the book summary only after the fact—nor (2) on some principled objection to the lying (marketing) that book-backs do. Rather, I use the back of the book to sketch in (for you) the sort of narrative discourse that this book positions itself in, especially as it contrasts with claims made (on the back of the book) about that discourse. In other words, how the book back misrepresents TenNapel’s narrative implicates the narrative itself.

So, then again we have that Garth finds himself “stuck in a world run by the evil ruler of Ghostopolis, who would use Garth’s newfound abilities to rule the ghostly kingdom.” Clearly, the blurb writer has not read this book; the evil ruler—a usurper, one might add—simply wishes to destroy Garth to avoid the challenge Garth (theoretically) offers to his power. Garth, however, has no aspiration to toppling rulers—and the impression created here seems one where Garth places himself in the middle of some political intrigue (as the most central and important element), when in fact 90% of his motivation involves nothing of the sort. Also, because good and evil remain utterly unambiguous in this fantasy, Garth unquestioningly (and unconsciously) permits himself to get used (politically) by the “good” guy to topple the bad guy.

This description of the book, while generally and merely a piece of ad-text, no doubt aspires to try to summarise something of what the author himself might identify as an intention in his work. Consequently, we can see that intention and work stand in a rather incoherent relation to one another.

This often comes across painfully in the book itself, at both the macro-level of the narrative and in specific moments.

For a macro-level example, having established that Garth has a terminal illness and that his mother never spoke again to her father after a certain point in her life, in part or apparently because of his alcoholism, Garth meets his own son in the afterlife. His son looks very old, because time works strangely in the afterlife; or, more precisely, the book claims that one’s “inner age” provides the form one takes. Thus, he encounters his grandfather as a boy his own age at first. We get no explanation why Garth’s son’s “inner age” clocks in at a hoary 80 or so, but meanwhile, of course, Garth reacts with surprise to learn he has a son at all.

TenNapel did not establish when Garth’s terminal illness would kill him. The matter gets covered in only one page of the book:

DOCTOR: It’s incurable.

MOTHER: Then how long does he have? If you know so much, how long does he have to live.

DOCTOR: Nobody can say. It’s our job to fight it and keep Garth as comfortable as possible.

MOTHER: He’s too young to die. He’s just too young! (13)

So we already have no reason to believe Garth could not live to reproduce. But the far more obnoxious part involves how this plot element gets resolved. Garth sees an old man:

GARTH: Grampa? How did you ever make it back here?

SON: I’m not your grandpa. His ghost is back on Earth.

GARTH: But you look just like him.

SON: Your grandpa’s features run in the family, in your grandpa, in you … and in your son.

GARTH: There must be some mistake. You can’t be my son! I have an incurable disease—

SON: –they find a cure (256–).

I don’t know that one could possibly provide a cheaper or more trivial treatment of this issue. Similarly, as far as Garth’s grandfather’s alcoholism, which led Garth’s mother to never speak to him again (a pretty serious degree of alcoholism, one would think), Garth initially raises the question when he meets his grandfather in the afterlife.

GRANDPA: Is your mother still … you know … mad at you?

GARTH: You have no idea, Gramps! I’m not even allowed to bring you up. Something about earrings …

GRANDPA: … oh, the earrings. Your mother came home with pierced ears on her sixteenth birthday, with a pair of these long jingle-jangle earrings hanging down!

GARTH: …and?

GRANDPA: And that’s it. I threw a fit. She ran away and I never saw her again.

GARTH: You didn’t talk to each other for twenty years over a pair of earrings?!

GRANDPA: Over a pair of earrings! Times were different back then.

GARTH: What about the part where you were drunk?

GRANDPA: Oh yeah, and there was that (88–9).

This actually reads as pretty gross to me, and the denouement comes off no less brief and trite. Garth returns the earrings (from the afterlife) to his mother.

MOTHER: Garth, where did you get these?!

GARTH: They’re from Grampa. He says he’s sorry.

MOTHER: From … Dad?! Do you think … do you think he knows that I forgive him? (264).

Not a word about Garth’s terminal illness—the narrative complacently believes it has solved that problem—ore the father’s alcoholism, but instead TenNapel supplies a complacent looking grandfather ghost taking flight off into the night sky, and on that note the book ends.

As such, whatever emotional legitimacy seems invoked by the themes at the beginning of the book get exposed as contrivances not taken seriously by the end of the book. To cite Chekhov, the gun got introduced in the first act, but misfired (or no one tried to fire it at all) in the fifth act.

By itself, this piece of failed promise might not only leave a sour readily taste in one’s mouth, but this problem of gross narrative missteps colours the book from start to finish. I won’t enumerate them all, but will highlight some of the more egregious examples.

Not quite so horribly done, Frank Gallows’ arc of redemption nonetheless wobbles pathetically on the way; more precisely, TenNapel provides nothing like enough narrative grist to “sell” Frank’s redemptive act at the end. He represents, on a much more limited scale and with less aesthetic cuteness, the Donnie Darko type, where an author asks us to accept the sacrifice of one’s life at the end as a redemption for all of the whining, entitlement, and general bad human behaviour committed previously. Dickens’ Sidney Carton in his Tale of Two Cities offers an even older (and definitely far more detailed and complicated) redemption arc, but it shows as well why Frank Gallows (and Donnie Darko) don’t cut the mustard.

The premise of a redemption arc: someone behaves badly and then gives their life in something resembling a noble self-sacrifice. Carton’s final speech makes this explicit, but in the case of Carton and Darko both, their sacrifice remains total: they stay dead. Carton claims he shall go to a better place than he ever has before, and Darko simply smiles with a gratuitously enigmatic peace, but Frank Gallows doesn’t stay dead at all—he simply reappears as a ghost in the afterlife. This “reward” (doled out by the author) comes off just as cheap and unmotivated as “they find a cure” as a solution to Garth’s terminal illness.

But the more obnoxious part of this involves its flouting of the human desire for fairness. IT demonstrates: “good things come to bad people who wait”. Theologically speaking, the death-bed conversion may make entire sense, but it still suggests we needn’t bother with being good people at all, if one can act the shit and get the reward at the end.

So, I suspect we try to make this unpalatable thesis palatable by imagining that the shitty acts (by Frank Gallows, by Donnie Darko, by Sidney Carton) arises really and actually from a true heart of gold that suffers because of heartbreak, disappointed idealism, and so forth. If Frank Gallows (or Donnie Darko or Sidney Carton) at root offer us simply hurt little boys, then we understand their acting out in those terms and believe more readily—so the theory runs—in the whole-hearted goodness of their final sacrifice. Despising the world and treating it accordingly, they simply await the chance to make a gesture worth of their “hidden” goodness.

Sometimes sarcasm doesn’t come across the Interwebs; if not, this stipulates it plainly.

I won’t debate here to what extent Darko or Carton genuinely establish the case for their redemptive final sacrifice. In Frank Gallows’ case, his general obnoxiousness reads much more explicitly as mere male license. I found it gratifying in the initial encounter with his ex that she not only resisted his advances but stated bluntly that she would do him a favour only because it happened to coincide with her own interests. (She wanted to head into the afterlife anyway.) Of course, once again, this initial show of female independence collapses utterly in a male-authored fantasy of female goo, when she (of course) takes him back. This image or arc of “female understanding” itself already mirrors the discourse and tenor of the redemption arc in the first place; we find it in a billion examples and it not only fails the Bechdel Test, it also underlines the Trinity Syndrome.

For the record, my objection to this doesn’t involve only the political or feminist, but also the aesthetic; TenNapel simply tells this story cheaply and stupidly, and it makes for a waste of time. It also wholly distorts or obscures the fact that Claire Voyant[4] herself makes sacrifices as well, but apparently they don’t count. Through no action of her own, it seems, she gets elected Queen of Ghostopolis—yet another sloppy, unmotivated, trite, and abrupt resolution that purports to tidily tie up the loose ends. But whose story does this tell? Frank’s arc already hijacks the emotional centre theoretically set around Garth, so that Claire’s ancillary status as a functional nobody in the book (ultimately: “love interest” for the “sad male” constitutes no authentic role any more than “black maid” does) doesn’t even require “tying up”. At this rate, even the “dying boy” narrative becomes a contrivance for telling Gallows’ redemption arc. Especially since Garth’s redemption has nothing to do with his acts in the afterlife; though ostensibly the superhero, “they find a cure” saves him from death in the real world, so his actions bear no relationship to his redemption.[5]

It appears, when TenNapel applies himself, he can draw well. Some of the sketches of Claire Voyant’s uncle, a werewolf, have fine detail in the close-ups. And some of the imagery in the main battle sequence looks good too, but just as he short-shrifts emotional or narrative elements in his book generally, he becomes equally lazy visually. He also allows himself to resort to more-than-cliché attempts at humour. For example, confronted by an ostensibly formidable werewolf who brews tea (for no apparent reason), when Frank says he prefers coffee, the werewolf acts with high dudgeon. TenNapel provides a stand profile “show-down”—the werewolf’s face considerably larger than Frank’s—as the werewolf declares, “You will sits and drinks my tea or I will eats you here and now!” Frank busts up laughing in the next frame, then in the next shows feigned indifference plus sweat drops while the werewolf keeps its glare steady. And then, in the next frame, Frank has disappeared with the word “woosh” to show his cartoon-like skedaddle to go drink some tea, as commanded. And at the end of this whole sequence, having declared, “Okay, this is the best [tea] I’ve ever tasted” (126), he childishly runs away, yelling as he goes, “Oh, and your tea stinks! I loves coffee!”

Note here that he specifically mocks the werewolf’s way of speaking (the wrong conjugation on “I loves coffee”), which itself already represents a bizarre choice on TenNapel’s part. Then this follows:

CLAIR (to the wolf): We do have to get going.

WOLF: Niece.

CLAIRE: Yes?

WOLF: You loves him. Even this blind old wolf can see that.

CLAIR: We already tried, Uncle. He left me. That makes him bad news in my book.

WOLF: He’s afraid. He didn’t want his boss to find you and send you back to Ghostopolis. Love is in the acts, not in the feels.

CLAIR: You can smell all that?

WOLF: That or I tooted (128–9).

Charitably, one might say TenNapel feels awkward trying to get this scene to come off properly and goes for weak humour at the end to try to save it. I have to say, the line “He didn’t want his boss to find you and send you back to Ghostopolis” introduces an element into the book that nowhere else appears. Supposedly it explains why Frank left Clair, but (1) the wolf had no direct access to any of this information in the first place; (2) even if this follows, why do Frank’s fears prevent him from telling Clair why he must leave her?

What really matters here, I’d say, involves the entitlement of the sad male, who because of some fear (generously claimed on the part of the wolf), this makes abandoning Clair without a word utterly acceptable. It intends to make his shitty behaviour into a forgivable offense, which offers simply a poor apologetics—and a narratively unmotivated one at that—for Frank’s dickishness, which in this scene gets put on especially spectacular display.

This whole scene, drawn in red and black and one of the more visually striking sequences, also represents one of the lamest passages in the book narratively—the pathetic exit line “that or I tooted” (not even “farted”) serving as a fine emblem for how off the rails TenNapel permits himself to go here. It matters as well that here Clair makes her most resolute declaration that it won’t work with Frank, not because of affect or whatnot, but because they’d already tried that. Of course, not only will this resolve not pan out, this profession also gets buried in the most puerile scene in the book—or the most narratively spastic. Frank behaves in certainly his most childish way, but TenNapel also resorts to no shortage cocky and complacent looks on Frank’s part (he really can’t take any of this seriously) and the werewolf too wobbles between legitimately ominous looking and exaggeratedly goofy, with goo-goo eyes and ridiculously exaggerated fingers.

But most of all how he speaks. Maybe TenNapel deploys some pun in making the werewolf a teashop owner, but with his rings and nose ring and shawl, he not only seems more like a stereotypical crystal-ball reading gypsy, he also seems (for that reason) less masculine. The transcription of his accent as well exoticizes him in a Slavic sort of way, and perhaps some of the tea paraphernalia TenNapel supplies should invoke a samovar and the Russia habit of drinking tea.

So the figure comes across as a narrative mess. Although a werewolf (for no apparent reason), he himself refers to himself as a wolf, and the obvious connection to the big bad wolf can hardly get missed. But that big bad wolf had transvestite tendencies (disguising himself as granny), and maybe TenNapel gets this werewolf’s gender ambiguity from there. Meanwhile, the ready contempt for the werewolf Frank permits himself to assume resonates with heteronormative arrogance, in fact, and TenNapel’s resort to potty jokes and childishness contextualises (if it does not inform) both this werewolf figure as well as the most serious expression of relationship resolution that Clair makes.

This represents the most extended sequence of such puerility on TenNapel’s part, i.e., not just puerility on the part of the characters but in the narrative choices he makes. As simply one other example, during the battle with the “evil ruler” the ruler declares, “I have one thing you don’t have that gives me the advantage” (228) and Garth replies, “Diarrhea?”

Besides the stupidity of this, TenNapel seems to believe (by making this choice) that it enhances the epic quality of the scene he attempts to portray (the battle between good and evil). And this choice does not simply hinge on Garth’s childishness, because later he compliments himself by having Frank tell Garth, “Diarrhea. That was a good one!” (253). This reminds me specifically of the moment in Donnie Darko when his love interest declares she has to write an essay about the most important invention ever, and Donnie answers with complacent certainty, which serving with obvious transparency as the mouthpiece of the screenplay writer’s own opinion. An equally obnoxious moment occurs in this book when Garth talks to his son. In a sequence where TenNapel draws Garth with all of the cheap patheticness he can must to make him look “stricken” or “sad,” Garth asks his son, “Was I … was I a good dad?” And his son (as an old man) answers, with a Rasputin-like look of earnestness, “You’re the greatest man I ever knew” (258).

Ugh.

This makes for literally shitty narrative (I mean more the “diarrhea”), but TenNapel shits on his own book in a more macro way as well. Just as one finds no good reason for the bizarre nexus of transvestism, contempt, and othering of the werewolf or the random fart jokes, TenNapel pushes out random fight sequences, probably on the basis of some formula in a book about how to write a comic that might turn into a movie. But even these fight sequences can’t make sense because, as occurs at the end of the book, Garth has always had access to above-normal powers in Ghostopolis. With a smug smarminess, after Garth gets told to use his imagination to find a way back home, TenNapel can’t even gracefully handle this, and has Garth say, “Oh, sure! I could have made my own way home using my power of imagination?! Fine, I’ll just create … a doorway back home” (257).

It appears we should accept Garth could not have previously realised this, which seems untenable given how blatantly obviously the point reads for a reader. But also, unless we presuppose some unique level of imagination (superior even to the Tuskegee airman who built the place in the first place), then we have no reason to think that only Garth (as a mortal) can do this sort of thing.

However, I don’t want to dignify the narrative with more than it warrants. Consistency of world-building in works of fantasy represent a baseline requirement of the genre. Not to meet that bar excuses us from trying to explain narrative events in world-terms. The attempt to do so amounts exactly to the same kind of effort by children to explain their alcoholic parent’s behaviour. It shifts blame for the chaos to the child, and the same occurs here as well—the unaddressed issue of alcoholism in the text helping to point to this fact.

TenNapel has literally and thoughtlessly cobbled together a narrative, perhaps responding to his own childish impulses along the way rather than working like an adult to do the (hard) work of actually crafting a serious story about series issues. He grabs snippet from some sad biography (involving dying children and/or mothers estranged from their alcoholic and grossly negligent father) and then makes fart jokes, treats those themes trivially, acts like any problem can be solved with a magic wave of a wand (or usually literally only one page of dialogue) and, along the way, permits himself some casual racism or homophobia. I won’t even go into any detail about the fact that of the several sub-rulers of Ghostopolis, all of whom have been manipulated by the “evil ruler”, only the bone king from the Northern Kingdom offers any resistance to that misrule.

In all of this, we see how the emotionally manipulative tropes of dying (white) boy and sad (white) male structurally arrange the elements of narrative into the sort of story that has nothing narratively unexpected in it. The trivialization this affects, ultimately if not by design then simply for the sake of entertainment, shows (in an admittedly clunky way) the ruinous effects of patriarchy. Who wants to have to live the pathetic life of Frank Gallows, only in order to sacrifice oneself in order to obtain the vagina of one’s dreams—I say vagina of one’s dreams, because to arrive at the point of reclaiming Clair Voyant, Clair had to first cease being herself. She makes therefore a sacrifice but one not, properly speaking, valorised by culture, but rather merely one demanded of women by patriarchy. For Frank, the sacrifice demanded earns him the reward he wants; the sacrifice demanded of Clair gets her only the reward patriarchy permits her, not the one she wants.

We tell ourselves myths not simply to explain the world but also to orient ourselves within a confusing world. Just as Pedrosa (as an author) confronted the death of a close friend’s child when he wrote Three Shadows, we don’t have to assume that TenNapel similarly processes any autobiographically specific occurrence, but dying children (dying boys anyway) can motivate people to try to “find answers” to that tragedy. In this respect, it probably matters that no “god figure” appears here—unless we count the Tuskegee airman who built all of Ghostopolis. Hard to tell if this amounts to a historically cognizant or merely insensitive acknowledgment that “reality” (i.e., Ghostopolis or the United States) got built on the backs of kidnapped human beings. In which case, do we get to blame Africans for making the US?

In any case, TenNapel seems to want to leave “culpability” out of the picture. It remains enough for him to posit a fantasyland where one may readily thwart the laws of physics (and disease, one assumes) with the force of imagination. I don’t lack sympathy for such an urge to find peace or solace—I disagree with “pragmatic” activists who scorn analytical or creative reflection, seeing it as unnecessary. Not only may we often need to better strategize in advance how to proceed, simply to find ways to have peace of mind prior to proceeding seems often necessary, since people who suffer greatly have a tendency to act like fuck-heads to others—as Zionist Israel makes obvious.

What I object to, rather: in articulating the consoling fantasy, TenNapel merely reproduces the grossest faults of patriarchy as if they offer solutions. We simply need to reward bad men for being bad (like Clair’s grandfather) and need to construe our future course of action by suffering the shittiness of the Frank Gallows of the world, up to the point where they finally decide to kill themselves for a noble cause—a fantasy that (as a solution) offers one no less childish than making poop jokes.

But the deeply level of injustice at work in this involves the roles for the Other in all of this. Clair must sacrifice her independence—and patriarchy promises her a throne as a result. Nothing ever gets said about what shall happen to the Tuskegee Airman, now that the evil overlord has gotten overthrown; perhaps he will still have to labour in obscurity, the unacknowledged economic base of the kingdom. Similarly, this androcentric solution, that requires male suicide and dying son’s, requires also the denigration of the most Other other in the book: the curious half-man, half-wolf, cross-dressing, not-quite-white Slav.

In brief, the back of the book gets it unfortunately right when it describes Garth’s narrative as a “boy’s adventure”. What TenNapel gives us amounts to adolescent pap. It wheels out, in a pejoratively childish way, everything the book starts to reach for but then backs away from with off-hand (poorly placed) jokes, &c. Taken as a personal statement, the book may (1) bring TenNapel some mental peace or (2) some money, but taken as a framing of social reality (much less a serious one), the “solution” it offers requires—presents factually, I would even say—the denigration of the Other as a necessary precondition for the (mental) well-being of (white) people.

Awful, with some nice pictures sometimes.

Endnotes

[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve given up on this project for reason stated here.

[2] TenNapel, D. (2010). Ghostopolis. New York: Graphix/Scholastic., pp. 1–266.

[3] Pedrosa, C. (2008). Three shadows. 1st American ed. New York: First Second, pp. 1–268.

[4] For the record, no other character gets such a silly or transparent name.

[5] Unless we want to invoke some karma or justice mechanism the book does not. No divine wisdom (except TenNapel narrativizing) rationalizes Garth’s rescue from terminal illness in terms of his good deeds.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides a I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: Camus, Abadzis, & Probst’s (2014)[2] The Cigar That Fell In Love With A Pipe

The more I think about this graphic novel, the less I have to say.

I selected it because the illustrator Nick Abadzis & H. Sycamore’s (2007)[3] Laika had much to recommend it (more narratively than visually); and in the case of that book, Abadzis wrote the story as well as provided the illustrations (along with Sycamore).

Here, it seems that Camus leans far too much on the namedropping that comes with Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth, and it seems unlikely—perhaps I get this wrong—that the central conceit of the story, that an (actual_) cigar producing enterprise in Cuba had a legendary, overweight, female cigar roller, Conchita Marquez. Not only her style of rolling, but the fact of the sweat arising from being overweight adds—in the conceit of the narrative—to the experience of smoking a cigar by her.

Ultimately turning out as allergic to nicotine, she gets shipped by her (greedy) husband to a Swiss sanatorium for treatment, but never makes it. Rolling cigars to the end, even though she reacts allergically, she dies but not before meeting a pipe-carving sailor on the ship who inspires love in her. &c. Hence, the cigar that fell in love with a pipe.

I could isolate throw-away details in the text that functionally unintentionally ironically. Orson Welles, for instance, has a black maid, who does little more than merely appear in the text, and one could have leveraged some kind of link between her and Conchita, but the authors decline to do this. significantly, the single-mindedness of Conchita Marquez’s cigar-rolling makes her immune to the usually nonsense surrounding women and love; i.e., she has more important things to do than play Steppin Fetchit for someone with a penis. However, not only does the book explain this as a result of her fatness and ugliness—at least she doesn’t suffer from the financially mercenary marriage of convenience her employer tricks her into—she does in fact “lose her mind” over the sailor she sees on the boat. This, because he smokes tobacco from her beloved factory, but the narrative still (1) paints her as neurotic rather than accomplished in her cigar rolling, and (2) not properly fulfilled except by a quixotic quest for union or at least proximity to the sailor, or his symbolic stand in, his pipe.

In fact, the whole of (male) (cigar-puffing) pleasure devolves to her ugliness and obesity; because of it, her sweat adds a tinge to the puffing pleasure that has no peer, all the more so as Orson Welles smokes the last three that Conchita ever rolled, dying of allergic toxicity as she did. Although you’d think otherwise, there seems nothing in the text to suggest we should read this as an allusion to the cigar delectations of then-President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky’s vaginal tang.

Poe declared no more compelling story exists than the death of a beautiful woman; or, in this case, the death of a fat, ugly woman who nonetheless has a quality that titillates or serves male pleasure; i.e.,, it proves the rule without providing an exception. The tragedy of Conchita’s story as the novel constructs it, then, does not involve the social circumstances that result in her death (the male privilege that demands her literal blood, sweat, and tears) but her frustrated longing for love as the only thing that can bring her true satisfaction.

Supposedly this echoes in a kind of reverse way. Orson Welles discovers Conchita’s spirit in the last cigar and places it with the pipe so that she can attain her desired happiness. But Rita Hayworth, presented as a relentlessly selfish and inadmirable bitch, decides to smoke the cigar, just to make Orson mad, and doesn’t even enjoy it, stamping out the remainder without finishing it. As a quintessential antithesis of Conchita (svelte and beautiful, but also selfish and heartless) we have a wealth of possible themes and connections that the author(s) might have explored, but in the end, Rita exhibits simply a (patriarchally conceived and) Eve-like perversity, ruining everything. So that Orson’s (paternalistic) kindness—placing the cigar and the pipe together—gets as negated as Conchita’s desire to be with the pipe.[4]

So we see a frustrated desire on the part of Welles (a male). His noble gesture—rather not in keeping with the rest of his presentation—gets ruined by female connivance. I think the authors except us to infer some simpatico between the frustrated desire of Conchita and the frustrated gesture that Welles makes, but the parallels bear almost zero similarity. Conchita’s sacrifice involves in the first place her life and then passively rely upon male agency to bring about that which she (implausibly) gets written as most desiring. Welles’ sacrifice involves not smoking the last (of three) cigars—hardly a full denial of pleasure when he has indulged it at least twice already—and then the actively self-congratulatory act of placing the pipe and cigar together, in effect making a great show of his generosity and self-denial. He certainly had no care whatsoever for whatever travails Conchita had gone through to make all of the other cigars she’d ever made (and the two Welles had smoked). In fact, precisely her suffering makes the sweetness of the two all the more poignant. Only when confronted with her ghost, which expresses a desire not to roll cigars (self-fulfillment) but to get placed near the pipe (masculine fulfillment) does Wells change his tune and “become generous”.

Since ghosts thematically refer to how the past haunts us, we do not have to read the ghost story element of this book in literal terms. What does this haunting mean, for instance, for Welles? In a banal way, we see Conchita’s devotion (to the pipe) as an antithetical contrast to Hayworth’s ugly selfishness. Haunted by a devotion he desires to have (or had once, in Hayworth or someone else), Welles takes pity on himself, as it were, and grants Conchita’s wish. In this context, it matters that the pipe says nothing. In fact, on the ship he specifically rejected Conchita, perhaps without words., and so it continues here. The pipe never indicates one way or another whether it desires proximity with the cigar, and so Conchita’s desire (filtered through Welles’ sensibility) gets turned into mere license, the same sort exhibit by the men who except Conchita to ultimately kill herself for their pleasure. This same lens makes Hayworth into a raging “ugly” bitch, the Conchita/Hayworth ugly/beautiful axis getting reversed in a typically conventional way.

One would like something more than this in the haunting—after all, the narrative involves Cuba—but it seems that the possible hauntings that might arise in that context get sacrificed to the typical tropes of patriarchy. In this respect, the cover of the book speaks volumes. It brags that it features Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth, but only Welles features in any kind of significant way. The threat to the union of the cigar and the pipe arises initially from a little boy, and Hayworth only steps in to finish that gesture. All the same, presumably Welles and Hayworth get selected for this text for some kind of sumptuousness of relationship, I suppose—Liz Taylor and Richard Burton might have sufficed, had Burton been a cigar aficionado. But the cover of the book also provides the image of Hayworth smoking a cigar—and looking like she happens to enjoy this one (with her eyes closed). This suggests that the authors never had anything broader in scope than “frustrated” love.

Of course, the back of the book asks, “can love triumph over adversity, or does it all go up in smoke?” But it insists also that the book ranges “from the heyday of the cigar industry to the glamorous heights of Hollywood’s Golden Age,” which simply doesn’t happen. Almost all of the action in the United States occurs in Welles’ study, and nothing of the “glamorous heights of Hollywood’s Golden Age”. As a failed conceit, we might still wonder if this points to a haunting as well?

Of course, the mere facts of human history but also the specific facts we now have in abundance about the history of Hollywood attest that the entire façade of such a Golden Age has as much reality as a Hollywood set or a Potemkin village. The glamor of that age got purchased very much at the expense of women and the lone Black person (in the United States) playing the inevitable role of “black maid”. Abadzis’s previous book (see here) seemed amply informed by his own geographical displacement, but here he has no access (presumably) to dictating that theme find presence in this book. Perhaps Conchita’s displacement from Cuba toward Switzerland resonated for him and made it appear in this book. Precisely because she smells the tobacco of her lost home country does she lose her mind for the man who smokes it—one could almost say that she falls in love with that and not the sailor at all.

But what lost place haunts Welles then? To the extent one may read this theme (of displaced persons) out of the text at all, it certainly doesn’t seem present on the principal author’s part.

Endnotes

 [1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge.

[2] Camus, D., Abadzis, N., & Probst, J. (2014). The cigar that fell in love with a pipe: [Featuring Orson Welles & Rita Hayworth]. London, England: SelfMadeHero, pp. 1–110.

[3] Abadzis, N., & Sycamore, H. (2007). Laika. New York: First Second, pp. 1–205.

[4] Just logistically speaking, the novel has to go rather out of its way to provide the contrivance to permit Rita access to the locked cabinet where the pipe and cigar rest. The pair (the pipe and the cigar) have already narrowly averted one disaster, when Rita’s visiting brat-nephew gets discovered trying to steal the cigar. As soon as Rita prevents this, she then proceeds to smoke the cigar herself. The narrative suggests that Welles has taken adequate precautions to protect the cigar and the pipe, while only an unreasonable degree of perversity on Hayworth’s part drives her to (1) find the key, (2) decide to smoke the cigar—not for any real good reason, I must add, (3) and actually follow through on the plan. One very readily will find little fault with Welles and all fault with Hayworth, but in a patriarchal world some woman-baiting rings disingenuously. If Rita must act the bitch, this arises from a social environment that inequitably treats even a world-renown star like her as less than Welles (or other males), &c. The authors present her as a parasite, producing nothing (but trouble), in contrast to Conchita, who unselfishly sacrifices even her life for the sake of making cigars (that men consume with inordinate pleasure and gusto).

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides a I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: Pedrosa’s (2008)[2] Three Shadows

This graphic novel, which for this author “was born out of the agony of watching his close friends’ child die very young” (dust jacket), has some very effective passages. A family (father, mother, son) find themselves being watched by three ominous horsemen and the sense of danger and threat the author generates works very well. Learning the figures have come for the son, and that the parents cannot save him, the father takes him on a journey in an attempt to escape.

It must seem cold-hearted to enter into any literary analysis about the feelings of parents who lose children, especially when the book comes from a witness to the suffering of other parents, but in the first place, I can criticize the book without impugning the kindness and good-intentions on Pedrosa’s part writing in response to what he witnessed. In fact, if the piece has an social significance, it must necessarily arise from whatever we can abstract or extract generally from the very specific circumstances he witnessed.

Beyond this, however, I would resist the terrorism of suffering. In our human desire to recognize the suffering of others—i.e., not to dismiss it—we find also a counter-narrative whereby those in pain (or sometimes their defenders) make them the unassailable centre of the world. When someone howls, “I’m in pain,” between an inhuman, “well buck up” and an anti-social “I’ll get whatever you need” we could use a better, third alternative.

Although Poe said the death of a beautiful women makes for the most compelling story, the death of a child certainly makes for one of the easiest and laziest of narrative manipulations. Mahler’s Kindertotenleider offers an especially gross and kitschy example, but the almost literally sacrosanct protective shroud wrapped around dead children—in a culture that shows a naked ugliness in its disregard for the death of children of colour—makes this veil require not puncturing but annihilation.

More precise, we may distinguish between the personal effects (and uses) of dead children as far as parents (or people who would be parents) goes compared to the structural effects and uses of dead children on the part of Power (i.e., the State, &c). In terms of controlling discourse, people, and culture, Power leverages or exploits peoples personal responses to dead children in order to coerce cooperation with or complicity in the agendas of Power.

And when a book gets published, it becomes a social gesture. And so it no longer exists as only a personal matter; it becomes a part of the structural, social world it occurs in, and thus (advertently or not) becomes complicit in or cooperates with the structural patterns that Power uses dead children for. &c.

This should strike no one as controversial. I make this distinction in order to forestall or anticipate objections that use a personal analytic, rather than considering the book in its social existence. For all books, this always remains true, and it leads down the well-worn path of “subjectivity” versus “objectivity” or “matters of taste” versus “matters of literature” or “untrained, amateur appreciation” of literature compared to “specialist, academic” analyses of literature, and the like. In its most elemental form, this simply means someone claims, “But I like the book”—bravo, who cares but you about that? Even to make the point as a matter of public opinion says nothing for anyone else, except to the extent that I do (or believe) I share tastes similar to yours and therefore might consume it myself.

And if we can blithely consign all of that to the exuberant “play” of “cultural discourse,” while we busily go on slaughtering Gazans and despoiling Afghanistan and the Congo of its “natural resources” &c., then by all means congratulate yourself for your public masturbation.

And I mention public masturbation because it stands as the opposite of the problem that a book like this presents: the public display of pain. Robin Williams’ suicide has brought out tidal waves of people personally responding to his death (understand), in some cases quite rightly demanding that their own kind of suffering that led them to contemplate suicide not go further unrecognized, but other commentators on the issue demands that the kind of suffering they experienced because of someone else’s suicide offers an argument for the further demonization of suicide as an act. You hear someone say, “My father committed suicide,” and the necessary social response to that boils down to, “I’m sorry you had that experience, but that’s no basis for a public policy on suicide.” More generally, the person who says, “I have suffered because of this or that” (in this book’s case, a dead child) does not automatically or necessarily advance a rationale for determining public policy about that suffering. And when a person acts like it does, I call that the terrorism of suffering.

Since one can hardly ignore the point, I will make clear that the behaviour of Zionist Israel offers the most cogent argument against the terrorism of suffering.

We do not pay doctors to handle our agony or suffering with kid gloves. Sometimes, we demand that they take a knife to our body, and commit atrocious violence to it (under anaesthesia preferably) in order to remedy our malady. To respond to howling suffering only or always tentatively, with kid gloves, hyper-gently, makes for (1) an unreasonable approach, especially when the person relies on the terrorism of suffering to place themselves at the centre of attention, rather than actually desiring a cure—by no means does this characterize everyone who suffers, but only a certain kind of sufferer—and (2) an ineffective means of treatment, especially in those cases where the person remains fearful of or resistant to the need for a treatment at all; once again, this by no means describes all people. Most who suffer want treatment, but not all; most who want treatment suffer, but again not all.

Because Pedrosa offers a book as a social artefact, it stands closer to something like a “proposed public policy” than a “merely personal statement”. Because the book involves a dead child, the habit of Power to elide the personal experience of dead children into forms of Power’s agendas, it becomes very difficult even to recognize this social artefact even as a social artefact. We can see a pattern of this in the dust jacket text.

What price would you pay to save your child?

For the parents in this powerful, visually stunning novel, the threat to their son is both real and frighteningly vague. Three shadows loom, and wherever the family flees, the shadows follow. Is escape impossible? Are parents even meant to try? …

[For Pedrosa] Three Shadows was born out of the agony of watching his close friends’ child die very young.

It begins with a direct address to “you” but couched in economic terms—that there might exist some “price” we could set on saving “your” child. But then it proposes, as a matter of public policy, that escape might remain impossible or, even if possible, “Are parents even meant to try?” Having proposed this public policy question—for if parents shouldn’t try, then we might make laws against any such attempts and/or we may certainly not bother wasting any public funds on those parents who do try, even though they should not.

I’d rather put it in a footnote, but that seems politically non-astute. Amongst those with vast enough financial wherewithal to do so (and sometimes for those who don’t have such resources), the “price” they pay may indeed prove enormous—and heavily subsidized by everyone who pays into the insurance system they access (for however long they can or do). I say this simply not to lose sight of the fact that asking what “price” “you” would pay may very well not involve only “you” in who that “price” gets met.

I say again, whatever “good” the personal reaction may bring this does not automatically protect us from the schemes of Power. Certainly, one of the more disappointing turns in this book involves the reveal that the three shadows consist of three quite benevolent (and pretty) females. They may have specific identities (one goes by the name Fortune, and they do not seem incarnations of the three Fates) but whatever threat and horror they inspired earlier gets wholly dispelled. They tell the (dead) boy that simply his time has come; no big deal—someday the three women will return for his father.

Blah, blah, blah … why were you afraid of death, &c. I reject this sardonically because the whole thing comes out far too partly. Why, for instance, did they terrorise the family for months? The principal answer: because Pedrosa wanted suspense in his book. But a much more obnoxious development in this: at the end of the book, we see the father and mother with two happy daughters, and as the father and mother hug, they share a moment of grief over their departed son.

I doubt it would have happened this way had they lost a daughter. But more, in this tidy replacement of the dead son with two daughters, I detect the grotesqueness of the book of Job, who received one hundred fold all of the wives and children slaughtered by שָּׂטָן (Satan) as part of his lost bet with יהוה (Yahweh).

We can see here very precisely how the personal and the structural can conflate. The lived, historical experience of these two human beings (to whom a reader might readily respond) includes their grief for the dead son, however much their lives now seem blessed or joyful in the presence of their daughters. But on a structural level, the unambiguous message that two daughters do not equal the “price” of one son rings loudly and clearly. And I say this certain that Pedrosa would hastily deny the point.

Readers may want to defend Pedrosa’s narrative choice (imagine, instead, had he provided the couple with another son), because parents do remember grief and because no amount of more children can wholly replace the one lost, which of course falls flat on its face, as any number of couples who keep having children until finally a son gets born attest.

But this crass sexism remains a minor offense compared to the larger one that (necessarily, helpfully) answers the despair of parental loss by invoking a metaphysical fantasy about the afterlife as a consolation. I mean, again, that our own “horror” or “terror” of death—as ably portrayed at the beginning of Pedrosa’s book—gets “answered” by the reveal: “death is not scary; relax.” That may do all well and good for us personally, but upon this myth will (and has) Power sent men to murder other men in other countries (or in Ferguson, MO). The “personal solution” to the problem of dead children (or death generally) re-inscribes itself as an even greater problem when Power takes hold of it and uses it to dignify (or excuse) its murderous rampages domestically and abroad.

This already seems heinous enough but on aesthetic grounds as well Pedrosa unnecessarily distorts his text further. Over the course of the book, it moves from something more or less realistic, albeit with the intrusion of the ominous horsemen, to a metaphysically magical world. Having (miraculously?) survived a storm “at sea”,[3] the father and son end up in the hut of something that soon enough reveals itself as something like a demon or spirit and imbues the father with gigantic proportions and strength (in exchange for his heart). Later, he gets beset by ghostly hordes and dies—though why his strength finally fails never gets answered.

All of this seems merely to set up a pointless digression in which the three women, now shown as pretty sweethearts, seek out a scumbag who has cheated death. Elaborately, though for no apparent good reason, they try to play a trick on him to deceive him, which goes off poorly, but he ends up dead anyway. And a vial he’d worn with some life essence or whatnot in it gets given to the dead boy, who uses it to bring his father back to life.

So besides this weak fifth-act introduction of a wholly new plot element—the three women could simply have had the necessary vial of life essence for reinvigorating the father; or he might not have passed out or lost his strength in the first place, &c—this episode raises a host of other dubious proposals. While the father and his boy have attempted to flee death (unsuccessfully), once it catches up with them, the happy news that death offers nothing scary after all doesn’t get the same reception from the man who cheated death. He does not happily assent and resists, though futilely. So, when Power tells us, “death is inevitable” (so let’s not waste public funds trying to keep it at bay), Pedrosa also adds, “and it is futile to resist it.”

Pedrosa humanly uses the hopelessness of this situation to quote, “Three lines that give me solace: in this our springtime there is no better, there is no worse. Blossoming branches burgeon as they must. Some are long, some are short.” And then adds (on the next page), “Stay upright. Stay with life” It seems the reference to “upright” links to the image of the tree on the page, and thus also the short and long branches. I also have to note that the sentiment of the poem quoted doesn’t (necessarily) accord with the metaphysical conceits of the book. By granting agency to death, and especially by invoking some notion of justice whereby someone who has attempted to cheat death gets put in his place (he also represents a morally reprehensible person who suffers in his afterlife), Pedrosa inserts a culpability for the occurrence of death that the poem does not (seem to) require or presuppose. The poem offers sheer happenstance that some (lives) are long, some short.

The clear message—appreciate what you have while you have it—finds support in the father’s own realization that he erred terribly by running away with his son, cheating his wife out of her interactions with him. This human message—appreciate who you have while you have them—rings less obnoxiously than the undesirable consequences involved in invoking (happy) afterlives, but it still wholly lacks any will to political action. Pedrosa (inadvertently) warns us, “Resistance is futile” and he protects that message—by protects, I mean how the fact that he has written a story about dead children such that it seems utterly non sequitur for me to object as I do here—by wrapping it in the sacrosanct zone of dead children. And by children, we should understand that as dead sons.

Lastly, one could write a piece about the unhappy androcentric bias in this piece. The mother goes to a witch (who inexplicably later commits suicide to no purpose), who tells her it the situation has no solution. The mother wholly assents to this, and the father alone sets out to defy death.[4] So when the book jacket says, “and wherever the family flees, the shadows follow” this “is” factually false; the mother gets left behind. And Pedrosa tells the whole narrative from the father’s point of view. Even so, one easily keeps thinking it is the boy speaking; the opening paragraph for instance runs:

Back then, life was simple and sweet. The taste of cherries, the cool shade, the fresh smell of the river … That was how we lived, in a vale among the hills—sheltered from storms, ignorant of the world, as though on an island, peaceful and untroubled. And then … everything changed.

This doesn’t sound much like a father, but also “And then … everything” changed not only has a kitschy ring to it, it doesn’t accord with the facts. We know that adolescents love to overstate things “(everything sucks”), and this kind of “everything changed” certainly reeks of such overstatement and, again, doesn’t generally denote how adults deal with the world. In fact, the house did not burn down; the father’s wife does not turn into a tree or a frog or a newt; his son doesn’t sprout wings; the horse doesn’t keel over, &c.

Rather, almost nothing changed, and certainly not at the very beginning. Initially, three ominous horsemen appear on the hill. The word “ignorant” in that first paragraph almost seems like an admission on Pedrosa’s part—ignorance providing a self-inflicted wound rather than a necessary one. The family deserves what happens to them because of this wilful ignorance and isolation—this adolescent, read childish, refusal to engage with life in its actuality. And life, especially, where death remains a blunt fact.

However, Pedrosa gives me no good reason to believe I should read “ignorant” not as “innocent” here. And the fact that the father claims, at the very outset, that “everything changed” must necessarily hinge on the fact that the son became “marked for death”. But the son does not constitute “everything” (again, that Pedrosa responds to the death of a son this way and not a daughter doesn’t seem accidental.) Heilbrun and Stimpson (1975)[5] cogently object to a (literary) criticism that proceeds as if texts about males stand in for texts about human beings generally. They find nothing wrong with texts that dramatize artfully the male or masculine experience, when it does not arrogate to itself a claim to speak for all people (i.e., men and women alike). Pedrosa’s text fails this test, insofar as it offers a father’s response to the death of a son as if it can or should stand in for a parent’s response to the death of a child (much less a mother’s response to the death of a son or daughter).

The fact that the writer of the dust jacket of this book permitted himself (or herself) to say that the father and son journeying together equals “wherever the family goes” specifically writes the mother out of the picture. We see here a case of the terrorism of suffering, that a father’s agony over the death of a son should allow him such license that the mother’s voice gets seen only through his lens (a typical problem of patriarchy) or that we may write her out entirely.

Endnotes

 [1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve dropped this project for reasons given here.

[2] Pedrosa, C. (2008). Three shadows. 1st American ed. New York: First Second, pp. 1–268.

[3] I put this in quotation marks because in the book supposedly the journey crosses a river and should take three days, but for all narrative purposes, the river seems to transform into an endless expanse of water, and thus a sea. It seems like a continuity error.

[4] Some might say I overstate the mother’s acceptance of the witch’s decree. Whatever support she offers her husband’s desire to attempt to run away with the son, she also most vocally insists that the father should just accept fate.

[5] Heilbrun, C, & Stimpson, C. (1975). Theories of feministic criticism: a dialogue. In J. Donovan (ed.). Feminist literary criticism: explorations in theory (2nd ed.), pp. 61–73. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it. It describes the aspiration of these “replies”.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides a I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: Lat’s (1980)[2] Town Boy

This is a companion volume to Lat’s earlier[3] (1979) Kampung Boy, here tracking his life after his family moves to a town after growing up in a village (in the first volume). I chose this book (and Kampung Boy) for a reason similar to reading a first volume of Abouet and Oubrerie’s (2007)[4] Aya series; to get a view of elsewhere in the world (through graphic novels) without succumbing to orientalist cryptotourism. To borrow a summary:

Town Boy is the sequel to The Kampung Boy. Published in 1981, it continues Mat’s story in the multicultural city of Ipoh, where he attends school, learns of [U.S.] pop music, and makes new friends of various races, notably a Chinese boy named Frankie. Mat capers through town and gets into mischievous adventures with his friends. He and Frankie bond through their common love of rock-and-roll and playing air-guitar to Elvis Presley’s tunes above the coffee shop run by Frankie’s parents. As Mat grows into his teens, he dates Normah, “the hottest girl in Ipoh”. Town Boy‘s story is a collection of Lat’s reminiscences about his teenage days in Ipoh, an account of “the days before [he] moved to the capital city to venture into life as an adult… and later a professional doodler.” The cartoonist wanted to publicise his knowledge of music and write a subtle story about friendship. Frankie is representative of the diverse friends Lat made in those days through a common love of music.

I’d rather this reply remain cantered more on the book itself and not reactions to it, and the fact remains: Mat does not date the hottest girl in Ipoh, but manages to contrive going on something like one day (seeing a Tarzan movie). At the end of this outing, Mat asks Normah if they can hang out more in the future, and she declines, letting him know about her very strict father.

Other reviewers have found Kampung Boy more satisfying in terms of story; this seems somewhat generous. Whether Lat wanted to “write a subtle story about friendship,” generally this book has no (conventional) story whatsoever. It ends with Frankie having boarded a train to go to London, essentially to disappear out of Lat’s life forever (that feels like the implication anyway), and while Frankie has been a central character throughout the book, the friendship occurs in the much wider context of “life” and thus leaves the ending with a sense of non-ending.

To put this another way, it doesn’t seem that Lat has a story to tell so much as a story to show. By a wide margin, the interest the book generates revolves around the goofy, charming, curious manner that Lat draws . Most of the physical spaces get drawn closer to realistically while the human characters often have wildly distorted heads, bend forward or backward (impossibly), have twisted around their spine, &c. Teeth (a row of squares) figure prominently, and a cursive “w” stands in for a nose in many, many places.

We say “graphic novel” but really the better ones seem more novelized graphics; at least, with the obvious exception of Alan Moore (and he doesn’t always provide an exception), the dominating effect of novelized graphics come through (get carried by) the illustrations. It boils down to the degree that the notion of “visual storytelling” has credibility and to the opportunity for interplay (availed to or not) between text and visual in a graphic novel.[5] This becomes especially obvious, for example, in something like Woodring’s (2011) Congress of the Animals and more difficultyly to sort out in McKean’s (2010)[6] Cages.

Here, the graphics seem to upstage any general attempts by the book to generate a conventional narrative, i.e., we have a novelized graphic literally (and one that paints a picture of a time and place), so that the sort of talk above about subtle stories of friendship would seem to fall flat. This may explain why some reviewers found this book more diffuse (or aimless, less focused) than Kampung Boy.

To return to the inaccuracy of the summary above, not only does Mat fail to “date” Normah but for once, the summary claims Frankie and Mat play Elvis Presley. In Frankie’s record collection, Lat does rough in a Presley album cover, but he much more distinctly includes Bill Haley & the Comets and a Ricky Nelson cover; moreover, Frankie and Mat lip-sync to Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock”, which has a reputation as the anthemic rebel song for 50s youths.

I don’t intend to go bananas and ascribe a bunch of dark intentions to these inaccuracies, but the details from the book seem obvious enough that to get them wrong more readily suggests deliberate misrepresentation than accident, though it would remain unclear why one would deliberately misrepresent the details. In the case of the “date,” Normah approaches Mat to ask for help with an art assignment. In doing so, he finagles going out to food and a movie, and (as noted) she declines more of any such else in the future.

After her initial approach, once Normah has departed the scene, Mat does a hotdiggety jump, and this already signals a possible rift in understanding; that is, Normah has approached him not on a pretext but actually to ask him about her art assignment. Mat clearly does not read the encounter as such. Once they meet, he directs their meeting to a café (i.e., to eat), and there he puts his adult cartoon aesthetic into the mouth of his younger self. This note of (authorial) self-aggrandizement makes a nice and telling detail, since of course the young Mat aims to impress Normah as well. And Lat draws her eyelashes in some frames in a virtually literal starry-eyed way. He then has to coerce her into going to a movie, and when she finally says “OK” we see also Mat’s horde of friends in the background behind plate-glass looking on enviously.

As they walk to the movie theatre (the friends looking on in the background in one frame), Mat’s pretensions to literature get exposed (kindly) by Normah, who has obviously read and thought about the poetry and novels Mat can only claim to have read. If the object remains to impress Normah, this marks the point where Mat falls off the cart. Nonetheless, the next frame offers a two-page spread as they approach the movie theatre, Mat’s friends once again following behind in a forlorn, interested clump. Lat summarises the Tarzan film in two pages: the first, as one of Tarzan’s primal howls, the second a kiss with Jane (accompanied by wolf-whistles and cat-calls from the audience).

Perhaps Lat intends we should infer from this that Mat similarly steals a kiss at that moment, but all we can say with certainty: like his friends, who tag along, we only have the opportunity to assume that Mat has “scored” with the “hottest girl in school”. After Normah declines further “dates” with Mat, his group of friends, now close at hand in the background ask, “Is she going to be your steady?”

This sequence—rather unlike anything else in the book—seems to rather abruptly play up a kind of “big man” aesthetic. The author leverages (a possibly, or likely) fictional request by the “hottest girl in school” to plump his artistic talent and to boast that he (might have) scored with her. Lat at least balances this pretence by including the skewering that Normah delivers to his literary posturing, though even here the fact that the artist generally rejects words in favour of pictures still consistency underscores his visual (rather than verbal) talent; something his book attests to as well.

Still—not at all to claim “boys will be boys”—that Normah cannot ask a fellow student (one with artistic talent and accomplishment) for help with her work without it turning into Tarzan Meets Jane (the movie they go to is actually Tarzan and His Mate) remains problematic; that Mat (at least) if not also Lat and/or the reviewer above who makes the event into a “date” bums me out.

To whatever extent Lat realises this and plays against it—by including the literary skewering, and by including a resonant line from Normah about the book they discuss (“I have a feeling everything in that book is symbolical”; we might take that line as referring to Lat’s sequence)—he still places us in the position of “envious lookieloo”—not simply with respect to his pretence of sexual consequent but also in terms of his artistic talent, where he positions himself as an expert.

A way to read “against” this would arise from finding a way to locate in the text (either as its reader or its writer) a sense that Mat’s interaction with Normah represents an interaction with Mat’s whole community (of friends). Sometimes, some couples take on a wholly social significance; the community’s sense of self-esteem seems to rise or fall with the couple’s vicissitudes. Here, of course, we have nothing but a “brush with fame,” which Mat’s group (including Mat) obtrudes into. As a likely unintentional irony, following this “peak accomplishment” (by Mat and, by extension, his cohort), Lat on the next page summarises the graduating final results of his group of friends.

All the same, whether we can read this sequence as “big man” boastfulness (i.e., “I am the most awesome of you all, because I went to a movie with Normah. And, by the way, she sought me out”) or some sort of more collective thing (“there was a time when a star came down in our midst”), Normah remains wholly an object of representation. The point of view of the book does not permit us any view of Normah not mediated through the “ogling” of Mat, Mat’s group, Lat, or the reviewer who things Mat “dated” Normah.

If I can find an at least plausible reason for the reviewer misrepresenting or misreading Mat’s interaction with Normah, his misrepresentation of the detail about Elvis—beyond writing it off as simple sloppiness on the observer’s part—seems less tractable. Short of some sort of extensive examination about the cultural use of Elvis (as a symbol) generally as compared to “Rock Around The Clock”, dialled in to adjust for its Malaysian accents in the 1950s, there seems little to go on. Nor do the other songs reference in the book help much; Lat has the boys sing a Ted Vann song (Loop de Loop)[7] in one frame and their school band plays the Beatle’s “Ob La Di Ob La Da” for a festive gala. None of this has to indicate anything symbolic (on Lat’s part) or meaningful beyond the actual, autobiographical fact of it at the time, but that doesn’t get us any closer to understanding why the reviewer substitutes Elvis in his review either.

Yes, I know; I could just say, “Eh, fuck it. Doesn’t matter.” Again, sure: people mess up details all the time; maybe I’ve gotten it wrong that Lat includes no Elvis in the performed lyrics by the boys. And sure, I could say as well, “So he got it wrong. So what, it’s nothing.” At the same time, I’d assume if you wrote a book that you would want the summary generally available online not to have inaccuracies.

Maybe the least implausible reason for the substitution involves the greater fame of Elvis compared to Bill Haley & the Comets, although obviously to have used the phrase “Rock Around The Clock” would have referenced an extremely well-known cultural bit. When I think of Elvis, though, I think of someone iconically famous for grandstanding and much less any sort of collective representative for rebellion, such as got associated with Haley’s song. Elvis’ rebelliousness seems more individualistic and Byronic, compared (for example) to how the Beatles became or got leveraged as spokespeople for their generation.

Putting it this way reprises the point above: does Mat’s (non) conquest of Normah represent an individual “big man” boast (a la Elvis) or a more collective encounter between Mat (as a representative of his group, ala the Beatles)? Since the most dominating impression of Lat’s book centres around the time and place of the story (and less the specific characterizations of the people), it seems a “collective” reading of the book would have more merit. In which case, the reviewer may have (inadvertently) distorted the “meaning” of the text by turning the collective experience of Mat’s group into an individualistic “accomplishment” (something an individual in the narrow Occidental sense of the word would brag about), while also re-casting the “meaning” of rock music in the book (turning the social rebellion of “Rock Around The Clock” and social witnessing that the Beatles exemplified) into “merely” individualistic self-aggrandizement (a la Byron or Elvis).

In this “collective” versus “individualistic” contrast, I run the risk of seeming to reprise orientalist categories, but I have in the back of my head what Achebe (1980)[8] noted with respect to the African understanding of “individual” and “community”:

For me it’s not a question of [community] imposing its will [on the individual]; it’s a question of finding a balance which I think is important and which seems to be lost in the Western conception of man and his destiny.

In this balance the individual is important, but his importance is not so overriding that it is the only thing worth considering. This uniqueness and importance of the individual is limited by importance and the will of the community. It’s a question of balancing rather than one dominating the other. For instance, I don’t want to give the impression that the individual is unimportant in Ibo society. I don’t know of any culture which gives the individual a greater uniqueness than the Ibo culture.

Among the Ibo, the individual is so important that he is assigned a distinct creative agency. Every single person is made by his own “chi,” it’s not just one God making everybody in his image. Among the Ibos the individual’s uniqueness is really pushed to the absolute limits as far as I am concerned, so nobody can teach the Ibos about uniqueness of the individual. And you find it manifested in their political system and their social organizations. Heir concept of separate creators makes the Ibos difficult to govern because very man has a clear notion of his own destiny and does not rely on his neighbours for any kind of justification.

Yet this concept of the worth of the individual is always limited by another concept, the concept of the voice of the community. For instance, Okonkwo’s extreme individualism [the Things Fall Apart] leads to working against the will of the people and to self-destruction. And anybody who wanders off beyond what is accepted as appropriate for the individual, or a person who sets himself in opposition, quite often is heading for destruction. At the same time, I have to say that sometimes it’s in the interest of the community itself than an individual set himself in opposition. Because there is trouble, difficulty or pain, does not mean that this should never be done. Because sometimes you find that the only reason why society can move is that one individual comes out and suffers and the community gains by his experience (122–3).

This idea does not never occur in Occidental thinking, although we rarely find it adequately protected against mischaracterization;[9] Jung’s (1921)[10] notion of individuation provides a rare, adequate example:

It is obvious that a social group consisting of stunted individuals cannot be a healthy and viable institution: only a society that can preserve its internal cohesion an collective values, while at the same time granting the individual the greatest possible freedom, has any prospect of enduring vitality. As the individual is not just a single, separate being, but by his very existence presupposes a collective relationship, it follows that the process of individuation must lead to more intense and broader collective relationships and not to isolation (¶758).

A [social] norm serves no purpose when it possesses absolute validity. A real conflict with the collective norm arises only when an individual way is raised to a norm, which is the actual aim of extreme individualism. Naturally this aim is pathological and inimical to life. It has, accordingly, nothing to do with individuation, which, though it may strike out on an individual bypath, precisely on that accounts needs the norm for its orientation[11] to society and for the vitally necessary relationship of the individual to society. Individuation, therefore, leads to a natural esteem for the collective norm, but if the orientation is exclusively collective the norm becomes increasingly superfluous and morality goes to pieces. The more a man’s life is shaped by the collective norm, the greater is his individual immorality (¶761).

In Jung’s remark, “A real conflict with the collective norm arises only when an individual way is raised to a norm, which is the actual aim of extreme individualism. Naturally this aim is pathological and inimical to life,” the diagnosis of pathology and inimicalness to life seems in solidarity particularly with Achebe’s remarks, which come from the “opposite” side of individualism. Jung himself worried about individuality-only (Capitalism, though rarely called out by name) and collectivist-only (Communism) as absolute problems of social life, with history at the very least since the twentieth century showing unambiguously how destructively these form of “only” play out.

I would suggest—again, attempting to avoid exoticising or orientalising Lat’s text—that the “collective” or “individualist” dichotomy already inaccurately breaks up a social reality (in Malaysia at the time) where (as Jung and Achebe describe above) individuation consists of the individualized expression of collectively shared (cultural) values. So, we see neither “Elvis” (an individual) or Bill Haley & the Comets (a collective) nor Elvis and Bill Haley & the Comets, but an image of Mat, as an individualised expresser of a cultural norm.

Thus, we do not have to read Mat’s interaction as nothing but (or only) a covert angling toward romance or sex at the expense of the object (the person) of that desire. Although, having said this, it seems very different to contrast what Elvis or “Rock Around The Clock” might mean symbolically (as neither collective nor individualistic) compared to the motivations, aspirations, or meaning of Mat’s !date. This, because whatever “music” can or does mean in a cultural context that varies wildly in the United States or Malaysia, a baseline patriarchy deeply informs both cultures (however it differentially plays out). Big man politics function as much for social reputation (amongst one’s peers) as for trying to rope in a mate (or to score an erotic kiss in a movie theatre); the similarities render them hard to dismiss as simply “innocent”.

In any case, being attentive to these kinds of misreadings and misrepresentations (like the reviewer exhibits) seem germane when reading occurs across cultural boundaries. A kind of “punch-line” could get delivered to this point if someone proved that the reviewer I cite hails from Malaysia, but the steady incursion of “Occidental individualism” (of the type that Jung deplores), especially as a result of the monetization of social relationships, doesn’t guarantee that “Malaysian origins” automatically must safeguard against such “Occidental pollution”. Not that identity ever plays out in such a tidy monolithic way, but we may also keep in mind that many (if not most?) “foreigners” that late-order capitalism makes available for (orientalist) consumption stand (either deliberately or consequentially) in place of comprador intellectuals: figures who gain a certain limited access to Power within the shadow of empire as mediators and spokespeople for the culture they (advertently or inadvertently) tenderize for further capitalization; or, as Dabashi (2006)[12] aptly puts it, “native informers turned comprador intellectuals serve a crucial function in facilitating public consent to imperial hubris” (¶10).

This has next to nothing to do with Lat’s popularity in Malaysia but speaks only to his use by orientalising forces (all around us). Read less cautiously, we would say the presence of his book in our midst signals some kind of classic form of “cultural exchange” or “diffusion” but to say so disingenuously or naively brackets out the culture industry that benefits from placing it before us, including the socialization that not only makes us want to consume it in the first place but teaches us how to misread the text so that it remains amenable to that socialization. After all, whether we focus on the Byronic self-aggrandizement of Elvis or the merely hedonic individualism of rocking around the clock, both of these hinge on especially Occidental notions of how one enacts their human beingness in the world one finds herself in.

It may seem this all goes too far—that I have made far too complex something very much simpler, especially given that Lat’s book sometimes gets classified as for children. But such an objection (on those grounds) remains fantastically naïve. At root for vast amounts of proposed social change we find an emphasis on pedagogy, on children. I readily detect a general note of hopelessness about adults, who have already gotten formed, and now stand beyond repair or remediation. Far better, or at least apparently simpler, to focus on indoctrinating the next generation instead—and children’s literature, of course, plays an important role in getting “new messages” to “unspoiled minds”.

I will not here and now go into what might be made of the types and classes of physical distortion Lat resorts to when drawing people. However that gets received by (any monolithically constructed notion of) “people” in Malaysia, we might also ask for ourselves how we receive those images in light of our own aesthetic standards, &c. We could ask also to what extent seemingly Occidental standards influence (or pervert) Lat’s iconography. Strictly accidentally, Mat himself reminds me of Buzz Osborne, the guitarist from the Melvins—though maybe I should say Buzz found inspiration in Lat.[13] But, most obviously, Normah often resembles Betty Boop (especially in close-ups), and seems the least subject to the distortions typical of Lat’s human figures.

Ultimately, the two most dominating impressions I read (or misread) out of this book involve the much greater emphasis on visual environment (people and buildings) rather than what narrative story presents itself and the very different vibe that gets into the text when it turns “romantic”. If Lat intends to write a subtle narrative about friendship, it gets wholly hijacked when he lets Normah into the text; Frankie literally disappears over the course of the sequence.

I know that penises think the most important thing in the world involves ducking into some warm place and jumping up and down until they puke, but the assumed heteronormativity here seems strikingly unconscious in a piece that purports to describe life as a “town boy”. The fact that millions would sympathize with this narrative sequence offers no justification for its presence, much less any proof of its necessity. The fact that it comes wrapped up in a sudden deluge of testosterone, disingenuousness, and apparently self-delusion makes it that much more obnoxious.

I much more enjoyed marvelling at the variety and torqueing of figures in Lat’s book. It offered a sort of appropriately exoticized vision of the Other, although I refused to read the “weirdness” of the figure as either ”cool” or “sub-human” (the two main modes of orientalist consumption). The intrusion of such banal or assumed sexual iconography, not made any more palatable for being wrapped in humour, definitely put a gross black splotch on whatever else the book offered. And because this passage occupies an entire eighth of the book, that “wastes” those pages which might otherwise have remained devoted to more fully or more cogently tracking that “subtle narrative about friendship” that Lat claims he wanted to write.

Endnotes

 [1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve dropped this project for reasons given here.

[2] Lat. (1980). Town Boy: Macmillan, pp. 1–192.

[3] Lat. (2006). Kampung boy. 1st American ed. New York: First Second.

[4] Abouet, M, and Oubrerie, C (2007). Aya. (trans. H. Dascher). 1st hardcover ed. Montréal : New York: Drawn & Quarterly, pp. 1–106.

[5] Woodring, J. (2011). Congress of the animals. Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics Books.

[6] McKean, D. (2010). Cages. Milwaukie, Or.: Dark Horse Books, pp. 1–496.

[7] Coincidentally included along with Haley’s “Rock Around The Clock” on Harry Nillson’s (1974) Pussy Cats album.

[8] Egejuru, PA (1980) Towards African literary independence: a dialogue with contemporary African writers. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

[9] <href=”#_ENREF_2″ title=”Todorov, 1975 #152″>Todorov (1975) describes the literary genre of the fantastic as occupying a tenuous space between two other literary genres (the uncanny and the marvelous), and notes further that most such stories will lapse into one of these adjacent genres by the end of the work. This sort of mechanism describes the sort of tenuous position that “individuation” occupies in Jung’s writing, between the adjacent genres of hyperindividualism and collectivism, both of which he saw as socially unhealthy. Similarly, the sort of social balancing act that Achebe describes speaks to an analogous individuation (like Todorov’s fantastic), but the Occidental tendency to collapse this distinction (into “community” or “individual”) makes it easy for (Occidental) (mis)readers to construe his point the wrong way. Jung experienced a similar fate.

Todorov, T. (1975). The fantastic: A structural approach to a literary genre: Cornell University Press.

[10] Jung, CG (1976). Psychological types. A revision / Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

[11] In Jung’s text, he italicizes orientation and indicates with “(q.v.)” its cross-reference in the glossary.

[12] Dabashi, H (2006, 1–7 June). Native informers and the making of the American empire. Al-Ahram (797). Accessed 22 August 2014 from here.

[13] I don’t seriously suggest this; I say it only to note that were there in fact some direction of influence it would go from Malaysia to the United States, not the other way around.

 

“Disliking” A “Liked” Book

I remarked to someone recently that the most generous description I can make about judeochristian scripture (the Torah and the so-called bible alike) says that “the only thing it’s good for is to tell you how not to be religious.” When I’m being franker, I’d add that clearly that שָּׂטָן (Satan) not יהוה (Yahweh) inspired the text (in men or otherwise), but I intend that assertion metaphorically, since neither שָּׂטָן nor יהוה factually exist to inspire anything. They merely provide pretexts for inhuman behaviour as the Zionists in Gaza demonstrate, backed up by the “Christians” in the US providing arms to Israel.

To dislike judeochristian pseudoscripture involves nothing particularly controversial. First, vast numbers of people have suffered variously at its hands. But also, there exist widely dispersed social forces that to a greater or lesser degree, and to a greater or lesser degree of quality, have exposed such writings as different varieties of bogus, dubious, forgery, fraud, or stupid. Or, at the least, people have sharply raised such questions. At the same time, the transparently political purpose—the Power grab—evinced by the texts culturally makes it easy to oppose them as well. Certainly everywhere one finds a dispute about scripture, as between the exiled Hebrews and the Samaritans (way back when) or during the convulsions of the Reformation between Catholics and various stripes of Protestantism, to point at the putative holy text and say, “No, that’s not right” already paves the way for a generalized rejection of the text.

I do not mean to say that a rejection of a text offers a correct (or incorrect) interpretation simply by virtue of saying, “No, not that text.” I mean only that when someone stands up and says, “No, not that text” about judeochristian pseudoscripture, it doesn’t automatically or only come across as some kind of weirdly idiosyncratic reaction to the text. For all that people “like” judeochristian pseudoscripture, we know there exist vast hordes who “dislike” it.

Not so with Robert Burton’s (1620)[3] Anatomy of Melancholy. For me to come off the blocks pointing and snarling, “No, not that book” will seem daffy, first because almost no one knows the book anyway, but secondly, amongst those who do such rejection will seem out of the blue.

For this blog, I feel obligated to convince you that people highly praise this Burton’s book. For instance, on the back of it, Dr Johnson (the famous literary one) recommends it unreservedly, as do other historical figures—it probably has the oldest “praise-blurbs” of any book published. But it has also at least one current champion, in Nicholas Lezard’s (2001)[4] review (of The Guardian):

Paperback not so much of the week as of the year, of the decade—or, I am inclined to say, of all time. And why? Because’ it’s the best book ever written, that’s why” (¶1).

Let’s allow that such audacious hyperbole requires backing up (Lezard does attempt it) and that such stuff will likely wind up on the back of a book as promotional text (as indeed Lezard’s remark did). Still, we might offer the Law of Book Jackets: the higher the praise the less praiseworthy the book. In which case Lezard already exposes this “best book ever written” precisely as something else.

Though not of course the worst book either. Lezard does not merely stop at his opening[5] claim, even though there remains much to take issue with even in the far more modest defence he offers for Anatomy. The passage Lezard quotes from Anatomy as an example of its pleasures, for instance, provides an overly blatant case of deck-stacking. He writes:

Burton, you suspect, felt the miseries of scholars keenly. “To say truth, ‘tis the common fortune of most scholars to be servile and poor, to complain pitifully, and lay open their wants to their respective patrons… and… for hope of gain to lie, flatter, and with hyperbolical elogiums and commendations to magnify and extol an illiterate unworthy idiot for his excellent virtues, whom they should rather, as Machiavel observes, vilify and rail at downright for his most notorious villainies and vices.” And that’s a good quote to be getting on with: it shows you that Burton is on the side of the angels, that he’s prepared to stick his neck out, and that he is funny (¶2)

Burton does indeed go on much longer than usual when he talks about the melancholy of scholars compared to other topics, and he certainly shows himself more candid, more knowledgeable, and more detailed on the matter. And why? Because he worked as a scholar—so we might hardly find this surprising. It makes Lezard’s example suspect and insufficient.

He more candidly admits, “When opened at random, it offers not only dense slabs of 17th-century prose, but insane lists that seem to go on forever, meandering digressions, whole chunks of italicised Latin” (¶1). That this serves as the mark of a “best book” seems unlikely.

More than this, Lezard insists, “The lazy browser won’t even pick this book off a shelf, let alone open it” (¶1). In point of fact, the non-lazy browser finds the demerits Lezard admits on nearly every page. He insists, “No one on earth is going to expect you to read it cover to cover” (¶3). Why not? I wonder if Joyce expects us to open Ulysses or Finnegans Wake at random or if Bely expects the same for Petersburg.

But this will seem a miscomparison (fiction versus non-fiction at the very least). I do not exaggerate to say I have often more enjoyed reading and found more rewarding reading the dictionary than Anatomy.

But let’s take Lezard’s recommendation for reading Anatomy piecemeal and randomly. I offer you a chunk, grabbed quite randomly out of (part 2) of the Gutenberg edition of Anatomy (from here):[6]

These few rules of diet he that keeps, shall surely find great ease and speedy remedy by it. It is a wonder to relate that prodigious temperance of some hermits, anchorites, and fathers of the church: he that shall but read their lives, written by Hierom, Athanasius, &c., how abstemious heathens have been in this kind, those Curii and Fabritii, those old philosophers, as Pliny records, lib. 11. Xenophon, lib. 1. de vit. Socrat. Emperors and kings, as Nicephorus relates, Eccles. hist. lib. 18. cap. 8. of Mauritius, Ludovicus Pius, &c., and that admirable example of Ludovicus Cornarus, a patrician of Venice, cannot but admire them. This have they done voluntarily and in health; what shall these private men do that are visited with sickness, and necessarily enjoined to recover, and continue their health? It is a hard thing to observe a strict diet, et qui medice vivit, misere vivit, as the saying is, quale hoc ipsum erit vivere, his si privatus fueris? as good be buried, as so much debarred of his appetite; excessit medicina malum, the physic is more troublesome than the disease, so he complained in the poet, so thou thinkest: yet he that loves himself will easily endure this little misery, to avoid a greater inconvenience; e malis minimum better do this than do worse. And as Tully holds, better be a temperate old man than a lascivious youth. ‘Tis the only sweet thing (which he adviseth) so to moderate ourselves, that we may have senectutem in juventute, et in juventute senectutem, be youthful in our old age, staid in our youth, discreet and temperate in both (Part 2, page 29)

I have no idea what this passage relates to, &c, and for my purposes here, I don’t care. I leave it to you to decide “best book ever” and “great comic novels of English” (as Burgess insists). Nor do I mean by this to impugn what Burton factually accomplishes with his book, whatever that might consist of, but only to put in context the extravagant and excessive claims for this book. A book so good you shouldn’t read it all, certainly not in order—it would seem then that Wikipedia may have surpassed Burton for the title “best book ever”.

All of this so far about Anatomy has served simply to demonstrate that people do indeed exist who—and that a discourse does exist that—extravagantly lavish praise upon this book. The fondness for it likely doesn’t approach the biblical, but I do suspect that to some extent it involves something as deeply cultural as religion and thus becomes a kind of invisible to those praising it. I mean, while we might accuse Lezard (as a journalist) simply of shilling for Capital, the praise of Johnson, Burgess, and Jung[7] for the book would seem more genuine, less disingenuous at least. For me, although I no longer remember the passage specifically, Jung’s (seemingly) favourable remarks on Burton’s text led me finally to seriously take the thing up.

But one of the first counterexamples came early on in Burton’s book. From approximately pp. 43–97, he cites a heap of grumblers—the philosopher Democritus principally amongst them that Burton has taken as his prototype—and specifically grumblers who maintain that the world teems with madmen, fools, and offers nothing but sights of absurdity. In the course of this, Burton cannot resist citing practically the entire ecclesiastical hierarchy of Catholicism top to bottom as warranting especial singling out—well done, Protestant hypocrite.[8] This hypocrisy serves as a capstone on the obnoxiousness of this passage generally. For while Burton assures us he writes of melancholy due to his own, which I can hardly object to, he attempts in this way to rationalize melancholy as the “natural” response to the world, since the world teems with idiots. Almost exactly 300 years later, Jung (1912)[9] noted:

It is hard to believe that this teeming world is too poor to provide an object for human love—it offers boundless opportunities to everyone. It is rather the inability to love which robs a person of these opportunities. The world is empty only to him who does now know how to direct his libido towards things and people, and to render them alive and beautiful. (¶253, emphasis added).

Another commentator on Anatomy declares it “a perfect volume for me: I often just read along, nod knowingly with a sardonic smile, and sigh” (from here). I don’t point to this person’s use for or reaction to the book scornfully; it simply makes me think Burton should have called his book Consolations of Melancholy rather than Anatomy of Melancholy.

It does, however, point to what makes the most recurrent and plentiful opposition to the book,[10] and that will get covered in part 2 of this.

Endnotes

[1] The full title of this 1620 book by Robert Burton runs: The Anatomy of Melancholy, What It Is: With All The Kinds, Causes, Symptomes, Prognostickes, And Several Cures Of It. In Three Maine Partitions With Their Several Sections, Members, And Subsections. Philosophically, Medicinally, Historically, Opened And Cut Up. This year, I haveset myself the task to read four or five pages of this book per day, which for its nearly 1,400 pages will put me finishing it sometime in October 2014, once I skip the indexes and footnotes that source Burton’s Latin quotations, &c. Since I cannot hope to remember with a book this large, especially one read at this pace, whatever I might write as a reply to it, I plan to collect reflections along the way, not particularly numbered or systematically, maybe sometime(s) sporadically placed online, but primarily to memorialize the reading in some way. In the scheme of temperaments— sanguine (pleasure-seeking and sociable), choleric (ambitious and leader-like), phlegmatic (relaxed and thoughtful), and melancholic (analytical and literal)—I fall into the last category. These days, melancholy gets abused as a synonym for depression, but it more arises from self-reflection.

Meanwhile, if you’ve read this already in my other book replies, you can skip it. Otherwise: two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day, and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests. These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about. Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides a I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

[2] Burton, R. (1620). The anatomy of melancholy, what it is: with all the kinds, causes, symptomes, prognostickes, and several cures of it. in three maine partitions with their several sections, members, and subsections. philosophically, medicinally, historically, opened and cut up . New York: New York Review of Books.

[3] Burton, R. (1620). The anatomy of melancholy, what it is: with all the kinds, causes, symptomes, prognostickes, and several cures of it. in three maine partitions with their several sections, members, and subsections. philosophically, medicinally, historically, opened and cut up . New York: New York Review of Books.

[4] Lezard, N. (2001, 17 August). The book to end all books. Accessed 23 May 2014 from http://www.theguardian.com/books/2001/aug/18/history.philosophy

[5] I will simply declare this claim “indefensible”.

[6] Check out the surrounding passage if you want to see its wider context, or lack of it.

[7] Jung does not expatiate on the literary merits of the book.

[8] This marks by no means the only or even the most egregious case of Burton’s religious hypocrisy.

[9] Jung, C. G. (1962). Symbols of transformation: an analysis of the prelude to a case of schizophrenia. New York: Harper.

[10] A book this long can hardly escape offering a variety of experiences to readers. I might lack sufficient Englishness to register any intentional humour in Burton; at most, I would find his humour generally unintentional. One finds funny passages of course—funny, I mean, without resorting to the sardonic or the sarcastic, which do not warrant the term “humour” as I would see it. One may laugh plentifully at the absurd non-proportions of the book, &c., but in general, the experience of reading it tends to be like slogging through swamp-muck only to finally come across a flower, whose delightful scent remains or gets poisoned by the atmosphere surrounding it. Imagine the delicate experience of whiffing a daisy in a cow pie if my imagery didn’t evoke enough yet. I congratulate myself as someone willing to slog through big books and all without feeling a sense of time wasted, but this book readily convinces me I could spend my time better in some other way—again, perhaps, reading the dictionary.

Disclaimer

I want you to understand something. I wrote this for you. I wrote this for you and only you, even though I don’t know you or don’t know you’re looking. Everyone else who reads it, that’s their own affair. They may think they get it, and they do or don’t. You were meant to read these words.

Summary (the TLDR Version)

Politeness is racist. And the fact that that might sounds totally wrong to you is why TLDR versions shouldn’t be relied upon.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides a I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: Terry Eagleton’s (1984)[2] The Function of Criticism

I read this at the same time as J.M. Ellis’s (1984)[3] Against Deconstruction (reply here) and they in several fruitful ways informed one another. One of the most specific involved Eagleton’s own dismantling of deconstruction. But unlike Ellis’ text, this slim little volume has much wider ambition than to expose a whilom fashionable mode of literary criticism.[4]

For Eagleton’s book specifically, he sets out to track the rise of “public sphere”—to engage and rework Habermas’ own work on the matter—in an English context. And he does so in order to show how and in what way criticism arose originally in opposition to the State (as the middle class in particular sought to rise to power) and has since gone on to become a decorous irrelevancy for the most part, with the exception of Raymond Williams’ work—at least, Eagleton certainly extols Williams as uniquely dogged and visionary in keeping a steady keel over the course of shifting histories. Eagleton makes me want to read Williams.

The concept of the rise of the public sphere—written in 1984, before the mass Internet—has an especial relevance now. The public sphere of criticism, which originally made no bones about an “amateur” status that ranged over every topic conceivable, took the form of polite discourse in journals. In principal, anyone might participate in the discussion, and some of the crankier folks at the time could lament that tinkers, cobblers, and the like might hold forth an opinion as if everyone ought to pay attention to it (as opposed to only those duly appointed by time, history, or station as an exponent of any view). The overarching rule or criterion centred around politeness, if not gentility (since that quality got associated more often with aristocracy, it seems).

In this public project, which involved (implicitly) taste, judgment, and the like, we can see exactly the formation of a milieu or an environment where so-called common-sense and reason come to be equated; in other words, we see an emerging identity of reason per se and the reasonable. The unreasonable, therefore, becomes also the irrational.

Of course, while this articulation of the public sphere in principal could admit anyone (capable of behaving properly, i.e., politely), in practice it necessarily excludes vast swaths of people. Eagleton doesn’t make an enormous point about this, because it makes a commonplace: all venues implicated in social voicing necessarily (whether consciously or not) disallows certain participations and participants. All the same, this particular public sphere offers something of an anomaly because it takes as a central principle that anyone might participate, if only they go along with the rule of politeness.[5]

The particular “offense” of this does not arise from any supposedly “universal” human habit of excluding certain people from access to power—although we may object to this, and should—but in the fact that it imputes a failure of politeness to any who do not show up to participate. Since any may participate, for those who do not or those who fail to do so in a way deemed appropriate, the discourse presumes certain qualities or characteristics about them (i.e., primitive, uncivilized, irrational, &c). Rather than understanding the criterion for inclusion (in this case, “politeness”) as an imposed criterion and instead seeing “possession” of that capacity in those who can or cannot participate, this appears to shift “responsibility” to the primitive. Where previously closed circles of power unabashedly asserted your lack of a right to participate (or set up very strict means by which you could obtain access to power), here the responsibility for forming and maintaining “how one joins” gets left (in theory) to those who would seek to participate. And this, I suggest, because the middle class discourse had to emerge, more or less ex nihilo, and in the face of the existing discourses of authority. The Protestant Reformation played an enormous role in this sort of emergent authorizing.

Nonetheless, one can still point (as I believe Eagleton does to some extent) to a sort of incoherence at the centre of this sort of public sphere, and thus all of the downstream forms of criticism that emerged. In the specific history of it, a specialization finally emerges (generally after the twentieth century) and this coincides with the co-optation of the function of criticism itself by capitalism, so that the socially transformative force it represented originally (however demographically limited) safely disappears into the Academy.

Endnotes

[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve given up on that book. It doesn’t reward my reading.

[2] Eagleton, T. (1984). The function of criticism: from “the spectator” to post-structuralism: London: Verso, pp. 1–133.

[3] Ellis, J. M. (1989). Against deconstruction: Princeton University Press Princeton, pp. 1–168.

[4] For this and Ellis alike, I should probably write further reflections on these books, because I read both too long ago to now remember what specific points I wished to make or draw upon. Now, I have only left the “warm glow” of residual memory, which probably has more scope to it than any narrower or more local comments I might have made.

[5] The monstrousness of US-Zionist policy in Palestine, recently once again in the news in such an ugly way, does not arise from the supposedly universal human/historical fact that different peoples (in this case the supposed Israelites) have since forever at times invaded neighbors or people far away, stolen their land, and exterminated them. We can and should object to any normalization of this supposedly “universal” human behavior. But that does not undergird the current situation, because in this case we have a people using their own genocide as an excuse for committing genocide with the backing of a country that holds up freedom and self-determination as ultimate values.

A Taste for Vanilla

10 August 2014

Disclaimer

I want you to understand something. I wrote this for you. I wrote this for you and only you, even when I don’t know you or don’t know you’re looking. Everyone else who reads it, that’s their own affair. They may think they get it, and they do or don’t. You were meant to read these words.

A Taste For Vanilla

In tracing part of the evolution of the word “vanilla” from simply a flavour to something meaning “plain” or “boring” (often in a sexual context), Murrell-Harvey (2014)[1] points to its history of use in the increasing (cultural) visibility LGBT community of the 1970s:

The continuing openness of the LGBT community [then] not only brought about the need for different cultural and political events, but also created a new social scene. As it was noted earlier, there is a text sample of vanilla being used to describe a gay bar that is not SM (Rodgers, 184).[2] SM refers to “sado-masochism, a combination of the words sadism, meaning to take pleasure in inflicting pain on others, and masochism, to take pleasure in pain inflicted on you,” as an eloquent entry on Urban Dictionary puts it. Wayne Dynes also uses vanilla in a similar fashion in Homolexis when describing SM aficionados who “dismiss gays of simpler tastes as mere fluffs, who limit themselves to timid exercises in vanilla sex” (Dynes, 123).[3] The LGBT community uses the standardized meaning of vanilla to describe sex or gathering places as plain or boring. One of the many possible reasons the LGBT community probably used vanilla as their choice description is because it seemed innocent. The homosexual community was already, and continues, to face much hostility from general society. Why would they use a descriptive word that would only draw more negative attention to their personal lives? Also, vanilla was and is probably used amongst the LGBT community because it had already been standardized by American society. As it was discussed earlier, people began to standardize vanilla to mean plain or boring since before the 1940’s. It would only make sense for the LGBT community to use a descriptive word that is already common amongst the society they are attempting to be equal members of (¶7).

Murrell-Harvey cites a usage of “plain vanilla” in a headline from Life Magazine in 1942 (“Willkie Evolves a Plain Vanilla Foreign Policy for Republicans”) from which it “can be inferred that vanilla began to shift from a description of an actual flavour to something meaning plain or boring before the 1940s” (¶4). Yes, though I would propose that the sense here may not point yet to rather than “plain or boring” but only “with nothing added in”—a sense which informs the gay subculture usage later for vanilla sex and which, as a phrase used by S&M adepts, might well have evolved into meaning later “plain” or “boring” sex explicitly.

I less intend to start a debate over the merits of this proposed middle step between “flavour” and “plain or boring” than to extend Murrell-Harvey’s insight further by asking (or trying to intuit) why a food metaphor like “vanilla” got marshalled into making this distinction at all. As others have shown in the domain of adoption criticism, food metaphors applied to people (in this case children) become highly problematic; for example, from a Twitter bio, we have “adoptive vanilla mama to handsome chocolate son” (see here, plus the relevant comments). Murrell-Harvey also cites an instance of a sorority sister saying, “Vanilla men are alright, but I think you need some chocolate in your life” (¶1).

I can’t convince myself that no racialized overtones whatsoever cling to in these (sexualized) senses of vanilla—especially with the sorority sister example—but where a food metaphor gets invoked, it seems likely at least at first glance to suggest something desirable, something one would want to eat or, more metaphorically, to consume as consumers. This sense seems indisputable where would-be adopters refer to cinnamon or chocolate babies, &c., and not always (unfortunately) without the sexual overtones, as any number of transracially adopted girls attest. Even without this, resonance here with the “I’m-going-to-eat-you-up” of Hansel and Gretel sounds loudly and clearly, s also any memory one might have of the relative who pinches your cheek and declares, “You look good enough to eat.”

Of course, a use of a food metaphor may attempt to generate disgust, as Huxley does in the opening of his (1932)[4] Brave New World:

Wintriness responded to wintriness. The overalls of the workers were white, their hands gloved with a pale corpse-coloured rubber. The light was frozen, dead, a ghost. Only from the yellow barrels of the microscopes did it borrow a certain rich and living substance, lying along the polished tubes like butter, streak after luscious streak in a long recession down the work tables (1).

From Lopez (1998):[5]

This paragraph does not feature the only repulsive use of food and drink in Brave New World. Discussing how excised ova are preserved after extraction, the Director of Hatcheries “referred to the liquor in which the detached and ripened eggs were kept; and, leading his charges to the work tables, actually showed them how this liquor was drawn off from the test-tubes” (3). The use and repetition of “liquor” here almost reflexively invites the reader to have a glass of ripened and detached ova in saline (with probable gag results), but that again does not efface the fertility of the image, if the pun will be excused. And, after the main course of butter and goose-flesh, apparently washed down with eggnog, Huxley then serves us a “warm bouillon containing free-swimming spermatozoa–at a minimum concentration of one hundred thousand per cubic centimetre” (4). I suspect that the word “warm” lends this description its effectiveness more than the concentrated thickness of the bouillon itself; again, though, the inadvertently positive link here between eating (food) and life-renewal is obvious.

This all takes some untangling then.

If we could identify some cultural space where chocolate invokes disgust rather than appetite, then this would strengthen the (negatively) racialized sense of the vanilla/chocolate food metaphor cited above. In general, however, this seems more an exoticising (i.e., Orientalist) racial sense of chocolate. Here, it seems not only less “something added in” and also exactly the opposite of something “boring” or “plain, but rather (and precisely) something exotic.

Of course, if we want conventional sense of chocolate as “disgusting” (or erotic) then this takes us immediately into the world of scat, and one may thank Pynchon in his (1973)[6] Gravity’s Rainbow for drawing out an example of the racialized element this may convey:

Now her intestines whine softly, and she feels shit begin to slide down and out. He kneels with his arms up holing the rich cape. A dark turd appears out the crevice, out of the absolute darkness between her white buttocks. He spreads his knees, awkwardly, until he can feel the leather of her boots. He leans forward to surround the hot turd with his lips, sucking on it tenderly, licking along its lower side … he is thinking, he’s sorry, he can’t help it, thinking of a Negro’s penis, yes he knows it abrogates part of the conditions set, but it will not be dined, the image of a brute African who will make him behave (235–6).

As with similar passages in de Sade, or in various trivializing commentaries on Pasolini’s (1975)[7] Salò, usually a certain amount of scrambling results from those seeking safe high ground even to acknowledge they’ve acknowledged a passage like this. Murnighan (2001)[8] presents it as one of a spectacle of excerpts; Wilson (2002)[9] wraps it up as “imagining disgust” in the domain of psychology (Moore’s (1990)[10] Dark Eros keeps and admirably level head about it, avoiding the term “disgust”); the Internet refers to the scene as “hilarious” or “also sad as fuck” without admitting the possibility of its eroticism (intended by Pynchon or not), &c.

Let’s admit, rather, some people have a taste for it (de gustibus) and try to focus on more salient matters—much of the shit we eat under the guise of food anyway (e.g., McDonald’s) may prove worse than shit itself anyway. Moreover, Canetti (1960)[11] suggested that the celebrated German paranoiac Daniel Schreber put on public display in his (1903)[12] Memoirs of My Nervous Illness—perhaps precisely through the only allowable channel of a publication about his insanity—an authentic slice of the (dominant) German national psyche, in its depiction of Schreber’s fear and loathing for Catholics, Poles (Slavs) and Jews.[13] If so, we might say similarly that Pynchon puts forth—and similarly through the only allowable channel for it, a fictional novel about World War II—an authentic slice of the dominating (white) US national psyche.

All of this serves to contextualize the complicated mess of food metaphors, sexuality, and exoticising and condemnatory commentary on the same. It also, I think, helps to point away from a strictly racialised sense of the word as it came into use with SM adepts in the 1970s.

I do not mean by this, of course, that no racism prevailed then. I’ve not studied the matter, but it would surprise me to learn that the dominating racial patterns in the US at the time did not scale themselves down to the LGBT communities then as well. I simply mean to suggest that if we would ferret out where “vanilla” comes into parlance (amongst mostly “vanilla” skinned folks anyway), then racialised discourses may play a secondary role.

As Murrell-Harvey notes, a curious feature of “vanilla” (and her own article seems to fall gently prey to this as well) involves the conflation of the flavour with the ice cream associated with it—so that the not-white colour of the vanilla pod and the bean themselves disappears from consciousness—an unpleasantly apt metaphor. Going back to the “nothing added in” sense of vanilla, the lesser popularity of (and even the need to specifically articulate the distinction of) vanilla bean ice cream, with its innumerable black specks in the otherwise uninterrupted field of white, points to the resistance to anything added in one might encounter. This echoes Camille Paglia’s remark about menstrual blood in her (1990)[14] Sexual Personae,

It is not menstrual blood per se which disturbs the imagination—unstanchable as that red flood may be—but rather the albumen in the blood, the uterine shreds, placental jellyfish of the female sea (11).

And this evokes, even more generally, the terrors of miscegenation, the myths and fetishes surrounding the one-drop rule, and the radical denials of genetic realities that comprise all “white” people as white—once again, the unpleasant metaphor that bleeds out the colour of the seed pod and beans to pretend that the essence (the flavour) of it constitutes a refinement of the thing itself apart from some original not-whiteness. And if commercially available vanilla extracts can restore something of the original colour, now might serve as a good time to dig even more deeply etymologically and remember that the term vanilla links also to the genocide of the Americas and patriarchal sexism:

1660s, “pod of the vanilla plant,” from Spanish vainilla “vanilla plant,” literally “little pod,” diminutive of vaina “sheath,” from Latin vagina “sheath of an ear of grain, hull of a plant” (see vagina). So called from the shape of the pods. European discovery 1521 by Hernando Cortes’ soldiers on reconnaissance in southeastern Mexico (from here).

The relationship of this to European conquistadors amongst indigenous American people makes the racist note sound plainly enough, but to make a lot of hay about sexism seems too far off topic, i.e., remains so deeply buried in the archaeology of Occidental discourse that it seems to have become invisible here.[15] If I did want to try to find a connection to the 1970s sense of vanilla, I’d look at whether the term arose or had more social cache amongst the male-only subcultures of homosexuality at the time, i.e., if it did not get articulated first amongst lesbians. I might also wonder if the conventionally hypermasculinised character of much of the “leather scene” at the time didn’t betray its links to the homosocial hypermasculinity of conquistadors[16] (or soldiers, more generally), &c. For now, if I call these links tenuous I do not mean to dismiss them as trivial.

And I underscore all of this in any case mostly to point to a piece of something like bad faith, or at least an inconsistency at work when one tries to make a vanilla/chocolate/cinnamon and white/black/brown analogy. This doesn’t mean we don’t now encounter or receive “vanilla” as “white”[17] but that we needn’t simply rehearse this conflation while remaining ignorant of it.

If, however, we do adopt this equation, it might become tempting to locate the distinction that the SM adepts of the 1970s noted between themselves and practitioners of vanilla sex in their frequently visible black leather gear. In this case, vanilla sex would involve the “nothing added in” of naked (admittedly albanocentric) white sex. I don’t think this amounts to a very convincing equation, unless somehow all body hair gets moved onto the SM side of the equation and Twinkies ( much more overt and obvious food metaphor) get left on the other.

Meanwhile, perhaps readers will bear with me if I find fruitless (pun not intended) the attempt to locate the emergent use of vanilla in the LGBT community of the 1970s in any “flavour of vanilla” sense. It seems entertaining to imagine that if anything in a sexual sense might attach to “vanilla” as a “flavour,” then the best candidate seems semen. A prevalence for the use of the word “cream” as slang for semen might couple as well with the use attested since 1929 of “to beat, thrash, or wreck”. Cream in general gives us:

early 14c., creyme, from Old French cresme (13c., Modern French crème) “chrism, holy oil,” blend of Late Latin chrisma “ointment” (from Greek khrisma “unguent;” see chrism) and Late Latin cramum “cream,” which is perhaps from Gaulish. Replaced Old English ream. Re-borrowed 19c. from French as creme. Figurative sense of “most excellent element or part” is from 1580s. Cream-cheese is from 1580s.

which certainly makes the slang use fun, with iced cream specifically attested since 1744.

However, none of this seems especially to land us anywhere near to vanilla (or cream) as a flavour and most semen (except from dead or absent donors) tends to arrive at a temperature well-above frozen.[18] Also, simply to speak frankly, it seems more wishful thinking than any sufficiently widespread enough experience amongst semen-imbibers that they collectively could or would liken the many flavours of semen only (or first) in terms of vanilla (whether the extract, credited to chemist Joseph Burnett in 1847, or the ice cream). Having said this, one might still note the actual range of colours that vanilla ice cream exhibits—certainly almost never a totally pure white, specifically due to many of its additives—and this colour range at least also analogizes to the colour range of semen, if only accidentally. Someone alerted me also that vanilla extract now comes in two colours: the traditional brown but also a clear colour. The overarching irony then hinges on the fact that vanilla itself becomes “something added in” with all of its resultant colour variations. The unpleasant aptness of the metaphor continues apace.

Meanwhile, this apparent cul-de-sac into “flavour” may actually point to the way out. If we imagine sex conceived and judged as a matter of “taste,” then the metaphor that turns literal vanilla taste into figurative sexual taste might finally (and convincingly) link the usage. We could point then also to the panoply of other food-related phrases: a taste for Twinkies, Oreos, Bananas, Coconuts, Rice, &c.[19] Obviously, once someone makes the original equation, others will articulate further details and examples of it, and from that point then, to have any taste may come to mean having bad taste and/or boring taste or common taste, as the phrase “white bread” also attests.

At this point, while the mystery seems mostly unravelled,[20] it remains as yet unclear why the LGBT community specifically provided the vanguard for this usage in the 1970s. More precisely, at this point in on Murrell-Harvey’s (2014) research, it seems this usage became visible to culture more generally via the LGBT community in the 1970s. This involves not merely greater LGBT vocalness and visibility in the 1970s but also an increase of print publication, which leaves behind the traces Murrell-Harvey can recover. One might wonder whether the heterosexual BDSM communities of yore ever adopted the usage. It seems an adorable irony that a quick check of Sacher-Masoch’s (1870)[21] Venus in Furs (available here; the link starts a PDF download) contains the word “vanilla” but only in the front matter of the linked PDF, which announces “**Welcome To The World of Free Plain Vanilla Electronic Texts**”.

To hazard an answer why, I will go out on a limb and say that the gesture of cultural appropriation typically requires a cultural Other first to give voice to or to express an interdicted or taboo social form, one either actually unknown to the culture at large or one that (like BDSM) remain shrouded in silence. This appropriation may happen directly (like white kids and hip-hop these days) or indirectly (like white kids and the Rolling Stones in the 1960s), but the salient gesture involves the cultural performance of that which otherwise gets deemed unperformble.

In the present case, though Kraft-Ebbing and others had documented in various ways various paraphilias and “sexual deviations,” the psychiatric category this proposes renders the practitioner of such deviations as safely identified, contained, and delimited; the term “pervert” here serves to function as an apotropaic ward.[22]

To make this point more broadly, one might recall how the Jivaro people of South America would raze a neighbouring village in order to obtain a tsantsa, or shrunken head. This powerful ritual object required binding and all sorts of magic to keep it from destroying the village that made it, but this underscores the original insufficiency of the village itself, insofar as the villagers must acquire such an object from outside of it in the first place. Bringing the dangerous thing into one’s environment involves all kinds of requirements, and so acknowledging the “pervert” as a psychiatric category similarly invokes this sort of “binding magic”. Sometimes (and still to this day), such binding took the very literal form of restraints in psychiatric wards, but “banishing” the “pervert” into the temenos (into a sacred circle or “cell”) of the diagnostic category of “crazy” also affects this binding and thus delimits the extent that the “pervert” can affect society. Similarly, one might find the “permitted nigger” in a sundown town—an African-American who does not actually get run out of town at sunfall—or one might point to the openly gay character in the otherwise totalitarian and anti-gay world of Moore’s (1989)[23] V For Vendetta. These “exceptions” prove the rule, of course, precisely (I would say) because they remain “contained” within the cultural constraints that view and bind them.

Those not so contained pay the price, of course. BDSM, as a part of Occidental culture generally, could only take cognizance of it seriously—and not simply as a psychiatric category—when first given cultural voice and when first expressed by a punishable Other. I do not ignore that culture generally already viewed homosexuality as psychiatrically pathological. Most assuredly, the homosexual got shunted into the category of “pervert” along with all other sexual non-conformists. An (or but) the very era of greater visibility under consideration also points to a time when the subaltern began speaking—having its own printing press and getting its own message out. Or, to add a touch more historical accuracy, the incorporation of the homosexual voice (literally transcribed) into psychiatric literature provided some of the first “framing” of this subaltern voice. Admittedly, a merely well-intentioned framing at the best, that still took as a premise the mental illness of the condition, but a voice viewed (at least in ideal cases) compassionately. Less widely read, of course, were various texts that made pleas for compassion, like Radclyffe Hall’s (1928)[24] The Well of Loneliness.

Not simply the greater militancy of the push-back from the LGBT community in the 1970s against this psychiatric designation—which led, of course, in 1973 to the removal of the diagnosis of homosexuality as a mental disorder—but the increased textuality of the discourse helped to put the denunciation of “vanilla sex” more in the public eye. In feminist (and lesbian) circles of the era, the issue of BDSM remained extremely controversial to the extent that “submission” itself seemed already one of the key cultural tropes or demands that feminism felt it ought to banish forever. Women who sought (to control) that kind of experience often found themselves attacked as traitors or backsliders.

The problem of lesbian invisibility, however, may have left the main currents of this debate less in the public eye than the images of leather-clad “macho” homosexuals. If drag queen had previously provided the “ambassador image” for what homosexuality “is” (never mind all of the problematics this brings with it), then “leather queens” similarly got turned into a kind of alternative to sexuality—specifically, non-vanilla sexuality—even as they remained within the interdicted zone of the “homosexual” generally.

Again, cultural appropriation proceeds from an interdicted Other first performing it—even if culture also punishes them for it (up to and including violent reprisals and death). By definition, such an Other reads as “uppity” to the dominating culture, and (only) political organisation will tend to keep the main blandishments of violence at bay—though not always, as white reactions to Civil Rights events caught on TV many times.

The interdicted Other models an otherwise cultural impossibility or impossible culturality. In the case of non-vanilla sex, modelled by SM adepts (both lesbian and homosexual in the 1970s), this modelling comes with the assertion of its legitimacy. It does not accept the dominating discourse’s definition, which in this case involved (1) a designation of psychiatric but also (2) a designation as abnormal by other LGBT members. The existence of this distinction seems critical, just as Dr Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X (to pick just the most culturally acknowledged figures) made clear as well.

On this view, we would not expect (the heterosexual) Sacher-Masoch to challenge the dominating norm of culture. Once he “forces” dominating culture to take note of him, he gets consigned to the apotropaic ward—“ward” functions nicely as a pun here—of “pervert” and needs say no more about it. He does not serve as a modeller of interdicted Otherness, although his book might have inspired some to become such modellers.

Part of what I want to express here involves pointing to the debt of gratitude owed by the sorority sister who can refer to something as an alternative to otherwise vanilla sex. The existence of that distinction hinges particular on the anger and exposure risked by interdicted Others, who found themselves beleaguered not only by official bodies and psychiatrist, who wanted to condemn them as dangerous or crazy, but also by other LGBT people, who nervously at times distanced themselves in order to take on more of an assimilated (or assimilable) appearance. Under the pressure of the demand to conform (to assimilate), the “main body” of the LGBT community has jettisoned some of its “problematic members” (most pointedly NAMBLA from its national conferences), but also the BDSM community, &c., except that that community organised and pushed back.

This oversimplifies things for brevity, of course, but it doesn’t erase the cultural debt of gratitude owed for the emergence of the distinction afforded by the term “vanilla” sex. “Non-vanilla sex” denotes an always already fact of Occidental culture, even when that culture (1) pretends it does not exist, or (2) acknowledges it exists only in culturally denigrated forms (as “perversions” or “non-conformisms” &c). This suggests that the emergence of the term “vanilla” as pointing to “boring” or “conventional” sex does indeed have an increased chance of appearing precisely at a social locus where an interdicted Other (in this case S&M adepts in the 1970s) begins unabashedly or openly performing the “secret desire” (so to speak) of the dominating culture. One may call this a secret desire, because otherwise culture would not generally appropriate it, but would, rather, further interdict it by pathologising it, criminalising it, &c.

Let us not lose sight, however, that the secret desire here remains, not for homosexuality, but for non-vanilla sex—just as white kids appropriating Motown or hip-hop desire the “authenticity” of that music without desiring the “Blackness” out of which it necessarily originates. Somewhere down the road, perhaps, this appropriation might form one bollard at the end of a bridge that human rights activists (from the side of Black or homosexual America) might build toward, but in itself this appropriation does not challenge the delimitations and enclosures that surround the interdicted Other.

Endnotes

[1] Murrell-Harvey, C. (2014). Vanilla. Lexiculture: Papers on English Words and Culture, vol. 1, article 8. http://glossographia.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/vanilla.pdf

[2] Rodgers, Bruce. The Queens’ Vernacular: A Gay Lexicon. N.p.: Straight Arrow Books, 1972. 100-84. Web. 11 Nov. 2013.

[3] Dynes, WR (1985). Homolexis: a historical and cultural lexicon of homosexuality. New York.: Gay Academic Union

[4] Huxley, A. (1989). Brave new world. New York: HarperPerennial.

[5] Lopez, MR (1998). Two modern utopias: a comparative study of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Stanislaw Lem’s Return from the Stars. Unpublished Thesis. Antioch University. From here

[6] Pynchon, T. (2006). Gravity’s rainbow. New York: Penguin Books.

[7] Pasolini, Pier Paolo, Citti, Sergio., Grimaldi, Alberto., Bonacelli, Paolo,, Cataldi, Giorgio., Quintavalle, Umberto P., Delli Colli, Tonino., Baragli, Nino., Morigi, Tatiana Casini., Ocone, Enzo., Morricone, Ennio., Ferretti, Dante, Sade. (Eds.) (1998) Salò, o, The 120 days of Sodom = Salò : o, Le 120 giornate di Sodoma [Irvington, N.Y.] : Criterion Collection,

[8] Murnighan, J. (2001). The naughty bits: the steamiest and most scandalous sex scenes from the world’s great books. New York: Three Rivers Press.

[9] Wilson, RR. (2002) The hydra’s tale :imagining disgust Edmonton: University of Alberta Press,

[10] Moore, T. (1990) Dark eros :the imagination of sadism Dallas, TX: Spring Publications

[11] Canetti, E. (1981). Crowds and Power (trans. Carol Stewart), 6th printing. New York: NY: Noonday Press.

[12] Schreber, DP (1955). Memoirs of my nervous illness (trans. I MacAlpine & RA Hunter). London: W. Dawson.

[13] I must confess a confusion, for when Canetti writes: “we have already seen the ‘later champion,’ not named by him, who experienced Catholics, Jews, and Slavs as hostile crowds in the same personal manner as he did, hating them for their very existence and ascribing to them the marked urge to increase inherent in all crowds” (Canetti, 447, emphasis added). The allusion to Hitler and his ilk stands clearly enough, but the phrase “not named by him” not so much, since Daniel Schreber died in an asylum in 1911 and could not have “named him” if he’d wanted to.

[14] Paglia, C. (1991). Sexual personae: art and decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. 1st Vintage Books ed. New York: Vintage Books.

[15] More on this:

Latin “vagina” and Spanish “vaina” both mean “sheath” (scabbard). The vanilla bean pod is a hollow cylindrical container analogous to a sheath, hence the name. Anatomical terminology is often derived from analogies to instruments, implements, tools, and utensils: German “Kopf” (head) originally meant “cup;” the archaic English “brain pan” means “skull;” Latin “pelvis” means “basin,” Latin “tibia” means “flute,” and Latin “vomer,” which originally meant “plow,” was transferred to the penis. While this article makes too much of the connection between “vagina” and “vanilla,” it could have established a sexual connection by pointing out that the genus Vanilla is part of the family of orchids, and that “orchid” is from the Greek “orchis” (testicle) because of the shape of its bulb (from here, in the comments)

[16] Also this (though I’m not so sanguine about not changing the past):

Vanilla’s bland reputation is mostly due to diluted extracts or (ugh!) artificial flavor. Real vanilla, flecks of the pod and seeds in cookies, cake, ice cream or, dare I say, added to chocolate? Taking the broad perspective, a brown/white argument could be made for most tropical/new world products coveted by colonial powers: chocolate, coffee, spices, tea, tobacco, bananas…. But are we tainting the product with politics? We can’t change the past, only the future (from here, in the comments).

As for the past being the past: as Jung (1958)* notes: “The psychic catastrophes caused by the mental inertia of ‘experts’ do not appear in any statistics, and from this it is concluded that they are non-existent” (¶673).

*Jung, CG (1978). Flying saucers: a modern myth of things seen in the skies (trans. RFC Hull). Princeton: Princeton University Press

[17] e.g., “Meaning ‘conventional, of ordinary sexual preferences’ is 1970s, from notion of whiteness and the common choice of vanilla ice cream” (from here)

[18] Here again, a desire that “nothing be mixed in” connects in manifold biological, epidemiological, and racially genetic ways.

[19] I chose the terms here to deliberately keep their “racist” (or racialised) implications intact.

[20] I’d welcome input, amplification, and counterproposals from others. In particular, it seems one could seek additional confirmation by ferreting out analogous matters of taste from or in other linguistic or historical domains. &c.

[21] Sacher-Masoch, L. (2000). Venus in furs (trans J. Neugroschel). New York: Penguin Books.

[22] Shades of Paglia (1991) again here; see note 14.

[23] Moore, A., Lloyd, D., Whitaker, S., & Dodds, S. (1989). V for vendetta. New York: DC Comics.

[24] Hall, R. (1990). The well of loneliness. 1st Anchor Books ed. New York: Anchor Books.

I received my original birth certificate today, which confirmed one of my better guesses (based on genetic testing and genealogical research) about the identity of my genetic mother. However, as I had been forewarned would likely be the case, the document contained no information about my father, since (as in many states) birth certificates in Washington contain no information about the genetic father when the couple is not married.*

Presumably this sort of state of affairs exists because the patriarchy of the nation-state (to say nothing of political entities that pre-existed the nation-state) will require no male (unless married) to have to take responsibility for a child strictly on the word of a woman. It’s as if a tacit “women are sluts” premise creates and very doggedly protects a presumption of “reasonable doubt” and “innocence” where paternity is concerned.**

For people who were adopted (and for people in general with regard to the place, i.e., the womb, of their origin), this “epistemological barrier” throws an almost overwhelming emphasis on the mother. One can say, whether for better or for worse, birth is virtually only an affair of the mother and it would seem patriarchy has leveraged this fact to write fathers almost entirely out of the picture.

Certainly, in the bogus “triad” of adoption (which obliterates the “fourth” presence of the child itself), we should speak instead of an unholy pentacle: two genetic parents, two adoptive parents (to whatever extent these individuals are present to the event) and one human trafficker who mediates between these two devilish horns.

Whether we imagine the genetic mother as a dupe (innocent or not) of the adoption pentad or as a cold-blooded mercenary who recognises the value-added she can extract from her eggs and womb, the genetic father seems precisely the “(none named)” I find on my original birth certificate. But even when we construct the genetic mother as a victim of adoption, this strikes me as anti-feminist and paternalistic—it makes the mother pitiably culpable in a situation where abstract “forces” have taken advantage of her, even though those forces do, in fact, have some male name somewhere. Meanwhile, and more often, the orphaned seem to principally direct their animus at this “abandoning” (or “pitiful”) woman and would most often demand of her—not of their father—“why did you give me up?” (or, if not quite anything quite so strident, then a less dramatic inquiry about one’s natal origin). We expect “her” and not “them” to bear the full burden of providing an explanation.

But maybe I have the wrong impression; maybe orphans in fact do often express tremendous animus towards the “dick” responsible for their existence. But if by all of this I seem to suggest that any notion of “source” should shift its locus from a “maternal” to a “parental” emphasis, I do not intend by this to impugn the work and the fact of child-bearing that the mother does. If I would increase the “paternal” presence in the “parental,” I do so to increase the weight of responsibility on the genetic father’s part, which currently seems deliberately too lightened by long use, tradition, and the law.

Prior to genetic testing, the only responsibility demanded of men devolved to those children duly sponsored by marriage, whether procreated or accepted legally by adoption. Outside of that, the sexism of patriarchy permits us to harangue mom for being a damn slut, as if she alone (and not her and some male) were “at fault”. Clearly this is a “law” written by and operating in favour of males, and it shows itself in the adoption discourse and world in the vast emphasis on mothers on both sides of the adoption pentad. And yet even on the side of those adopting as well—most horribly in the role they sometimes play as sexual abusers—adopting fathers should not be overlooked as “negligible players” any more than genetic fathers. Here again, if we allow the discourse of adoption to be dominated only by (patriarchally constructed) females, this strikes me as implicitly and suspiciously sexist.

As my original birth certificate makes evident enough, if I did want to grind an axe on someone’s neck, the only one available is my genetic mother (at this point). And just because a “father” is a veritable impossibility to find, this only explains why mother-bashing becomes a first (or at least an easiest) order of the day, but it doesn’t rationalise or justify it.

What kind of sexist assumptions comes with all of this? In so much in life, we permit (or suffer) men to get away with all kinds of shit, which simply provides another reason to pay less or little (or no) attention to the father, absent or not, where adoption (and birth in general) are concerned.

Nonetheless, what weight of sexism does this encode? And how does it bear particularly on the experience of people who were adopted? Why is there ever any sense of betrayal by (or pity towards) the mother for the loss of whatever we do not get to experience from her, but nothing of the same sort of sentiment toward the father?

Endnotes

*An unmarried male in Washington (at the time) could get his name placed on a birth certificate by submitting some quantity of additional paperwork. From what I can tell, this didn’t happen much.

**I don’t think this is merely a “reasonable” or “rational” habit based on the fact that whichever womb a child emerges from is always 100% the mother’s while the identity of the father remains, in theory, potentially never actually establishable; that is, one can attain 100% certainty about the identity of a mother, but never about the father–at least not prior to the advent of genetic testing.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides a I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: J.M. Ellis’s (1984)[2] Against Deconstruction

At this point, I have perhaps allowed too much time to pass since finishing my reading of this book to remember the specific points I might have made about it.

A key contribution by it involves its disclosure of the intellectual roots of deconstruction that deconstructionists deny in order to make deconstruction seem fresh and new or revolutionary. Ellis makes clear, for instance, how Derrida (deliberately or ignorantly) misreads Saussure and then his (Derrida’s) epigones parrot that position grievously and garishly incorrectly, &c. In general, Ellis almost literally skins the cat of deconstruction and shows that it comprised (comprises) more a balloon of a cat than a cat.

Two things Ellis does not do, however. His psychologising of deconstructionist practitioners seems a bit beside the point insofar as it “blames” the individual for wanting to impart a sense of momentousness to the practice. He cites, as does Eagleton (1984)[3]—to say nothing of others—how deconstruction arose in a French context where an assertion about the unitary and monolithic character of literature had actual institutional support in the French Academy; a fact that nowhere exists in the US academy, such that deconstruction got received here as simply one more trick up one’s sleeve. But, unlike Eagleton, he less emphasizes the institutional implications of this.

At least I remember it that way. I read both books proximately to one another, but I most of all remember Ellis remarking on the psychology of deconstruction while Eagleton, not surprisingly, focuses more on the institutional history that the stuff occurs within. And neither of them—though Eagleton to a vastly lesser degree—seems to explicitly connect this to the “postmodern turn” in general.[4] But however much I’m misrepresenting Eagleton here, Ellis certainly spends the overwhelming amount of his time, when he addresses himself to the issue, examining the psychological motives of deconstructionists; he analyses its practitioners, rather than the setting of its practice.

In a vague way, to the extent that Ellis stands for a kind of common sense view of literature, meaning, and the like—a position that seems undamaged by such a characterisation, however much he complicates or articulates his position—he likely stands against the trends of postmodernism that permit (or that seem to permit) one to “say anything about anything”. As he notes more than once, this sort of premise means, therefore, the corollary that nothing means anything.

Again, because he does not fully articulate his position but exposes deconstruction in a reductio ad absurdum, only by cherry-picking his book would one arrive at his general position about the function of criticism, what a critic can claim vis-à-vis a text, and the like. A primary complaint of his involves debunking the claim that deconstruction does anything radically new or different and, in this respect, the strongly conservative and reactionary elements in deconstruction bear highlighting, since they make for a very cogent political reason to stand opposed to it.

But all of this points to the wider problem of postmodernism, not in the way that it dismantles any pretence or hope of (critical) consensus about meaning—this makes for a separate and pressing problem—but the way that postmodernism sits so felicitously within the academic culture industry. To put it bluntly: since capitalism requires an endless stream of new commodity for consumption, to the point that (or at the points where) postmodernism licenses the slogan “anything can mean anything”, then the production of endless streams of “academic” (in the most negative sense) work becomes possible. One may (or must) seriously entertain the notion of a study of eggs in Shakespeare’s late sonnets and the like. And, rather than a richness of view upon a single object (however we construe the literary “thing”) that constantly serves to disclose some kernel of the piece (recall: this is how science purports to proceed with that “thing” called the universe), we wind up instead with a mountain of self-cancelling observations that guarantee nothing but future iterations of more of the same.

Another of the things this guarantees, as Ellis makes clear: bad scholarship (or, less politely, a very low bar for academic talent and work). Part of the race to the bottom and the dumbing down of the United States becomes visible here; if one can say anything about anything and no criteria exist to judge such assertions, then academic work takes on a merely two-fold significance: it becomes self-aggrandizing for the author and masturbatory (if not pornographic) for the reader.

But even to say this still sidesteps the institutional support—particularly in the United States—that postmodernism has, where deconstruction offers little more than a style of propagation more than any serious intellectual endeavour, as Ellis makes clear over and over. In other words, notwithstanding Ellis’ own claims about what can and cannot happen in critical studies, his complaint about the illegitimacy of deconstruction does so without objecting to the milieu that supports his sort of criticism. He construes deconstruction as a bogus for of postmodernism, while his own tacit postmodernism (admittedly of a different type) needn’t bear up to scrutiny. And this, particularly as it remains buried within institutional structures.

Specifically, he notes that deconstruction in the United States could hardly offer anything revolutionary. Its opposition to monolithic, monologic meanings seems merely strident and silly in a context where a multiplicity of approaches has long prevailed (for a set of historical reasons not at all necessarily salutary). To put the matter too succinctly, in the US we laud “freedom” as the freedom to do whatever one likes—and if that means you like reading literature as a feminist, a racist, an anti-racist, a reader, a reader-response critic, an old-fashioned fuddy-duddy, or whatever else, we have no objection whatsoever so long as the institution can co-opt and politically neutralize that gesture by making it into a commodity. In a different milieu, the pathetic example of the band Rage Against The Machine sold on Sony Records shows exactly how radically the culture industry can co-opt anything.

So deconstruction simply makes more visible what has already always played a key role in (US) academia, and the capitalist world generally, and all the more extensively with the advent of postmodernism. As a strategy, deconstruction demands a style that participates in the sort of destruction of the public sphere that Eagleton traces in his book (The Function of Criticism: From “The Spectator” to Post-Struturalism). Multiple critics have noted the dogmatic insistence on language, for instance. Ellis underscores this as a gambit to keep the actual content of the contested terms away from analysis. I mean: if one proposes a distinction (in language), it typically becomes necessary to protect that distinction against misinterpretation (and thus misuse), but this fact does not mean that deconstructionist’s insistence on their term actually protects such a distinction. In fact, since deconstruction insists that all interpretation is misinterpretation, it becomes incoherent to insist that its own mysterious use of a term could warrant itself while anyone else’s does not. Ellis observes this tactic seems an especially common fault in the United States.

But what he does not emphasise in this involves how this belligerent insistence on terminology analogises with a belligerent insistence on one’s own point of view to the detriment of anyone else’s. If every time you try to contend with my point of view I reply, in some way or another, with, “No, you’re wrong. You don’t (or can’t) understand,” then besides the human offense of this, this represents an attempt at power over that obviously links to how political power forms (itself). In a US context, it dovetails with the “Freedom means I can do whatever I want” ideology, which particularly means I don’t have to pay attention to you (or give you any credence as an existent being) if I don’t want to. And if I have the money (or the power) to do it, then I also get to control the discourse and say so.

One could go on much more about this, but the second thing Ellis eschews involves any criticism of his relentlessly rationalism-as-common-sense presentation. Many times, he exposes the intellectual incoherence of deconstruction, and this makes for welcome exposition. But while this “logical” analysis succeeds in ably exposing the egregious failings of deconstruction, he so overemphasises it—or, perhaps more properly, because he seems to see or imagine no other mode besides this particularly variety of the “rational”—that he often winds up sounding carping. If you have ever read a critique of “rationalism” that laments or lambastes the sterility, pointlessness, or inadequacy of a “purely rational” approach but could not understand why the author seemed to pitch such a tizzy, then Ellis’ book may provide you a test case of such.

Ultimately, this problem rests on the same sort of thing that Ellis so ably explodes on the side of deconstruction. What he (correctly) objects to amounts to an illegitimate substitution, but we find exactly the same kind of illegitimate substitution at work in his insistence that “reason” can establish anything. On a much broader scale, this reprises the perennial (Occidental) philosophical convulsion between “positivism” (of some variety) and “scepticism” that Putnam has characterised as 3,000 years of naïve realism. In entering into and allowing the “play” of this contention, what disappears involves the power and warrant of those allowed to speak, whether the deconstructionists on one side claiming everything means anything or someone like Ellis on the other, claiming that things do, in fact, mean in particular ways, &c.

And they do, because of some consensus, whether we’ve arrived at that consensus through some “fair” process—which Eagleton tentatively characterises[5] in terms of the public sphere in the book I keep citing in this blog—or by a “loaded” (self-perpetuating) process, which we see the work of at the very least when we note the white supremacy of the United States. This doesn’t mean Ellis’ desire for a certain level of work already guarantees undesirable hierarchical processes of power but only that the implementation of it so far, historically speaking, has done so. Deconstruction, similarly, in principal offers an alternative to this sort of entrenched process, but its historical implementation has not worked out justly—most of all, it would seem, because the institutional forces of capitalism corrupt human intention to its own ends.

 


[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge.

[2] Ellis, J. M. (1989). Against deconstruction: Princeton University Press Princeton, pp. 1–168.

[3] Eagleton, T. (1984). The Function of Criticism: From “The Spectator” to Post-Struturalism: London: Verso.

[4] I feel like this must mischaracterise Eagleton’s position. Or, perhaps more accurately, it raises the issue in a particular way that ignores in general how Eagleton addresses it in his book. This, in any case, makes for an issue in that reply not this one; so I defer the point.

[5] I say tentatively characterizes, because he at no point suggests that the political reality of the late-1800s permitted literally anyone to participate in the public sphere; rather, the public sphere took as a blinkered premise that, in principal, anyone could participate in the public sphere. What this meant in practice—i.e., who actually did and was permitted to participate in the public sphere—differed markedly from the actual pool of “anyones” in England at the time.

Several for-profit companies now make personalized genetic testing more widely and readily available than in the past, adding the particularly attractive feature of widespread comparison amongst people’s genomes.[1] The usefulness of such genetic testing (for orphans and non-orphans alike) resides almost wholly in the breadth of participation by other people who have been tested, since the hope to locate one’s immediate family depends heavily (maybe entirely) on whether someone in that family has also been tested at the same site as you (but see the note on GEDMatch below). [2] Such testing will most likely provide indirect clues to one’s actual genetic family (second cousins and further back), principally because there are simply more of those to be found, and especially if one’s needed “search base” is transnational.[3] In brief, such testing offers a tool not an answer. It requires work (from the orphan) and often depends upon the kindness of (distantly related) strangers to yield actual “answers”. [4] That is, when such sites “find” that one has 500+ “third or more distantly related cousins” represents a kind of bad faith as an answer to “who am I related to” (or “what is my origin”). I suspect that orphans may hope, but don’t really believe, genetic testing will provide an easy answer, but it seems clear that such a prospect is part of genetic testing’s pitch (to orphans and non-orphans alike). This opportunity for genetic testing tempts people to throw their hat into the “genetic searching” ring, promising some kind of “answer,” which, in fact, will almost certainly only be forthcoming if you do a lot of necessary work to “make” that answer. And if your answer even “exists” within the pool of people searched–again, an important issue for transnational orphans. In general, I would note the much greater social justice in the demand to open previously closed adoption records than to emphasize any “work-around” that genetic testing might offer orphans. Whatever value genetic testing would or does have, to “locate one’s immediate family of origin” seems a red herring, tempting but not the most desirable gesture. So what “good” (or “bad”) is genetic testing for orphans? Endnotes [1] This has occurred, ironically enough, at a time when states like Washington have instituted new rules allowing access to previously closed adoption records. This rule goes into effect tomorrow, 1 July 2014. My petition is already submitted. [2] One of these developments includes GEDMatch, an independently operated genetic comparison database service that takes results from several for-profit (pay) sites, and lets you look even more widely and powerfully into degrees of connectedness with other genomes. As a volunteer-run, free service, keeping things running on their shoestring budget could use our support generally, especially as it adds strength to one’s ability to research paths of relatedness and origin. [3] Like any “Internet” forum where the public gathers, the degree of helpfulness (and thus the degree of usefulness) in genetic testing varies. I’m fortunate to have landed in an anthropological sub-niche, which not only has dissertations and papers written about it, but also generates its own genealogical interest amongst its members. Without this help, short of a crash course in self-education (if I had been able to figure that out without any on-site help), access simply to the genetic information itself remains largely vague and not useable. [4] Rather like the injustice of the child who has to pay for psychotherapy to deal with parental issues, the orphan is asked (or commanded) to bear the cost of this. My sister, who is also adopted, actually persuaded my adopting parents to pay for her psychotherapy, but when it came to hunting down her genetic relatives, she didn’t submit a similar demand for help.

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